back to the Black Table

If you’re counting story lines, Sunday’s Super Bowl has enough to keep soap opera fans busy for decades. Fortunately for the rest of us, a football fan also should love this matchup.

Are you ready for this one? Check out these plot points for Super Bowl 37. (Enough with the Roman numerals already. Quick: When is Super Bowl XLIX?)

-- No. 1 offense (Oakland) vs. No. 1 defense (Tampa Bay) for the first time ever.

-- A collection of Super Bowl veterans (Jerry Rice, Bill Romanowski, Rod Woodson) giving one of three players with 1,000 career catches a chance to win the first Super Bowl of his 15-year career (Tim Brown).

-- Two of the league’s loudest talkers, Warren Sapp and Keyshawn Johnson, playing in their first Super Bowl after a season in which they probably had less impact on their team’s overall success than in the past five seasons.

-- Rich Gannon and Brad Johnson, two quarterbacks dumped by former Vikings coach Dennis Green, square off in a matchup of two of the league’s most efficient quarterbacks.

-- A Bucs’ team built on defense -- and defense alone -- for six long years in the Tony Dungy era has gone further than any before it. Why? Because of its offense.

-- Two teams that would have trouble rushing for 100 yards if a Super Bowl were on the line meet to cap a season in which one NFL offensive record after another crumbled.

-- Oh yeah, there’s also that whole thing about Jon Gruden playing his former team.

The NFL probably does wish it had two weeks to hype this game, and not just because the temperature back at its East Coast headquarters hasn’t seen, oh, about 5 degrees in weeks and because Sunday’s forecast is for 73 degrees and sun.

But here we are with the conference championship games barely over, with this long litany of stories to digest and only a few days to do so before the big day. This time crunch is good because we won’t have to listen to Chris Berman prattle on so glowingly about, gee, gosh, everybody here is so swell and everybody deserves to win.

The timing is bad because the Buccaneers arrived in Tampa Bay at about midnight Sunday after smacking around the Eagles and then flew off to San Diego in the early afternoon on Monday. The Raiders had a short hop down the California coast, but both teams’ schedules are thrown completely out of whack. It is amazing how often that one team, or one player, succumbs to the hype of Super Bowl week and has an impact on the game.

The biggest story you’ll hear about this game is how the Bucs could shut down the vaunted Raiders’ offense. No doubt that Buccanneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has studied tapes of Miami’s 23-17 win over Oakland, the Raiders’ only loss since the beginning of November. Two big factors in Miami slowing down Oakland were defensive end Jason Taylor tossing Oakland tackle Barry Sims around like a child and the Dolphins’ secondary sticking with Rice, Brown and Jerry Porter.

Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice is a virtual Taylor clone, and the Bucs generate enough pressure from their front four not to have to blitz very often, leaving the secondary shorthanded. Tampa Bay’s secondary is red-hot. Ronde Barber is having one of the great postseasons of any defensive player, Brian Kelly tied for the league-lead in interceptions in the regular season and John Lynch and Dexter Jackson could be the best safety tandem in football.

So the real question: How will Oakland move the ball? Everything that Oakland does well, the Bucs are proficient at stopping. Running back Charlie Garner has been the Raiders’ spark plug most of the season, but linebacker Derrick Brooks is one of the few players who is good enough and fast enough to neutralize him, both as a runner and receiver. Brooks and the Bucs have been chewing up and spitting out small, quick backs like Garner for years.

The Raiders will have to be more patient than they have all season. They’ll have to take the short passes the Bucs give them (and which Tampa Bay rarely lets become huge plays), and they would be wise to give the ball to Tyrone Wheatley or Zack Crockett somewhere outside of their opponent’s 5. The Raiders will have several drives stuffed by, say, two 4-yard passes and an incompletion, and they might be forced into playing for field position, which is exactly how Tampa Bay wins. Gannon and the Raiders have been very smart and patient all season, but how will they react when they have seven or 10 points midway through the third quarter? They’re not used to being in that situation.

Brad Johnson and the Bucs are used to all kinds of scenarios. They’ve been up-and-down all season, finally breaking through with a ton of success lately. Discard everything you thought you knew about the Bucs’ offense. They have outscored two playoff opponents 58-16, on par with the Raiders’ 71-34 edge.

Johnson has become more and more comfortable in Gruden’s offense as the season has gone on and is capable of scoring quickly. Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius are not the three most dangerous receivers in the league, but the Bucs gradually have been pushing their routes further down the field. The seven-yard crossing routes are turning into 13-yard plays. The offensive line needs to give Brad Johnson an extra split-second to throw and, thus far, they’ve been doing that. With cornerback Charles Woodson hopping around on one leg, look for the Bucs to add an extra receiver and try to attack Woodson one-on-one. If the Raiders give Woodson help, that will leave a hole elsewhere.

Tampa Bay’s running game finished 27th during the regular season and probably will not be a huge factor. Oakland’s big, beefy defensive tackles, Sam Adams and John Parella, will stuff the middle, which is where Mike Alstott likes to run. That means more Michael Pittman running off-tackle. If Pittman can move the chains even a couple of times, that makes the offense even more potent. Pittman, though, has been a big-time flop and is much more fragile than his physical frame would make you think.

You have tons of hype, story lines on top of one another, one great offense, one great defense and two other units that are better than you think. No doubt, the talking heads could fill two weeks gabbing about this one if they had the chance. (Next year, the two-week break between the league championships and the Super Bowl returns.) But half that time would be spent coming up with inconsequential stories, such as whether Gruden should have flown west with the team, and the endless whole Media Day charade, which has become a parody of itself. (The NFL also schedules media access for virtually any player on either team on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, but it’s not MEDIA DAY.)

This makes for one extremely choreographed week, an even more finely tuned game day – the NFL’s pregame show starts 3½ hours before kickoff and runs two hours afterward, including a performance by ubiquitous NFL pop star Jon Bon Jovi – and a completely unpredictable game that no matter what happens, nobody will be surprised.

I’ll take the Bucs because I think the edge their offense has over Oakland’s defense is greater than any edge the Raiders might have. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tampa Bay had a decent-sized lead (10-13 points) deep into the third quarter before the Raiders mount a comeback. Watch for the Raiders to get an edge on special teams because the Bucs are pretty horrible on coverage and returns.

Assuming Tampa Bay can get one final score when the Raiders mount their push, I like the Bucs, 31-27. Of course, about 3.2 million people will publicly pick the final score of this game this week. Most of them will pick different scores, and all but one or two random folks will be wrong. We might not be surprised to see these two teams playing for the title, but the result will be something we never anticipated.


Matt Pitzer is a staff editor at USA Today Sports Weekly.