"Ready for dinner"
Sick of that Raiders vs. Jon Gruden angle yet? How about the pirate vs. pirate theme? East vs. West? Red vs. black? Age vs. youth? Can we show you something in a Jerry Rice is older than dirt story line?
Super Bowl week is upon us, and for all the surprises and upsets of the regular season, all the Houston Texans wins over playoff teams and four-game winning streaks by San Diego and five-game losing streaks by St. Louis, the playoffs provided a big fat dose of that’s-what-I-thought. Tampa Bay’s win over Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game Sunday may have been a mild upset, but the playoffs have spit out a Super Bowl matchup of the league’s best offense vs. the league’s best defense.
Zany, ain’t it?
One of the more useful clichés in sports is that defense wins championships. It’s not quite true, or the Buccaneers would own several rings already, but it’s not a bad place to start, and the Bucs and Oakland Raiders both made it look pretty good Sunday.
The Buccaneers didn’t just beat the Eagles, who also had a pretty fine defense, they made with a butt-kicking that even the 27-10 final score didn’t reflect. The Eagles took a 7-0 lead in the first minute after a long return of the opening kickoff by Brian Mitchell. The crowd was going crazy, and fans of the Bucs — a team that had never won a playoff game on the road, was famously 1-21 in cold weather in its 27-year history, and had lost in Philadelphia in each of the last two playoffs without so much as scoring a touchdown — had to be thinking, “Uh-oh, here we go again.”
From that point on, the Buccaneers, who under former Raiders coach Gruden have developed an efficient if unspectacular offense, dominated. The next six times they got the ball, stretching into the third quarter, the Eagles began their possession beyond their own 36-yard line five times. Twice they started in Tampa Bay territory. They managed a lone field goal, on a drive that traveled 28 yards. Meanwhile the Bucs had scored 17 points, driving 96 and 80 yards for touchdowns.
In the AFC Championship Game, the Raiders piled up 41 points and 375 yards on the Tennessee Titans, but don’t be fooled. Defense was the difference there too.
Each team had scored on its first two possessions, and the Raiders led 14-10. Now, after a Raiders turnover and a trade of punts, the Titans were driving. On third-and-9 at the Oakland 28, quarterback Steve McNair was nearly sacked back at the 38, out of field goal range, but he got away and scrambled for a first down at the 16. Three plays later McNair again escaped the pass rush and ran for a touchdown from the 9. The Raiders went three-and-out, and the Titans had the ball, a 17-14 lead and all the momentum with 1:47 to go in the half.
That’s when the Raiders won the game. On the second play of the drive, linebacker Eric Barton forced running back Robert Holcombe to fumble. The Raiders recovered and scored two plays later, then forced another fumble on the ensuing kickoff return. (We’re counting kick coverage as defense for this discussion.) The Raiders should have had a back-breaking touchdown three plays later, but Jerry Porter dropped an easy pass in the end zone. They settled for a field goal and a 24-17 lead, but the damage was done. The Titans, a battling team — and it shouldn’t go unsaid what a remarkable player McNair is — would fight back to within a field goal in the third quarter but could never catch up.
So now the Raiders, a team revitalized by boy-genius Gruden and improved by his successor, the pass-happy Bill Callahan, take on their old boss, who left ugly after last season, having quarreled with Raiders owner Al Davis, as any reasonable person will do, given time. The Bucs gave the Raiders four draft picks and $8 million for the right to sign Gruden. You probably know all this, because it’s one of the main angles the typing and chattering classes are masticating this week as though it were important, as though, say, the Raiders players wouldn’t want to win the Super Bowl quite so badly if their old coach weren’t on the other sideline.
In case you’re sick of that angle, here are a few others:
The pirate thing: More than one TV show and more than one newspaper will run a feature comparing Raiders fans’ pirate-inspired outfits to Bucs fans’ pirate-inspired outfits and maybe asking the person in the street whose fans are more sartorially scary. If you watch or read one of these reports to the end and you are not killing time in some sort of waiting room, you should think seriously about whether something has gone very wrong with your life.
The Joe Jurevicius kid angle: Jurevicius is a Tampa Bay receiver whose wife gave birth prematurely last week to a son who has had complications. Jurevicius missed workouts while attending to his family back home. Late in the first quarter Sunday he took a Brad Johnson pass on third and short and ran 71 yards with it to the Philadelphia 5. It set up the go-ahead touchdown and was widely cited by the Bucs as the game’s key play, the fist sign that this game would be different than those ugly, no-offense losses in Philadelphia the last four times Tampa Bay had visited, twice at playoff time.
Jurevicius had barely handed the ball to an official when the Fox announcers pounced on the genuinely heartwarming story of his emerging from a weeklong struggle with serious life issues to make a fabulous play. It’s a real story, and I don’t think the Fox people or anybody else would wish anything bad on anybody’s kid, but gosh, TV people just love it when athletes have sick relatives, don’t they? They love it a little too much, it seems to me. It’s kind of disturbing.
The old guys looking for a ring angle: There are three ways to approach this one. You have old guys like Jerry Rice and Bill Romanowski of the Raiders who have won Super Bowls with other teams and are now trying to win another before the sun sets. You have old guys like Lomas Brown of the Bucs who have been on losing Super Bowl teams and now have the chance to erase that disappointment before the sun sets. And you have old guys like Tim Brown and Rich Gannon of the Raiders who have never been to the Super Bowl and are finally getting their chance to play in the big game.
The game means so much more to each one of these guys than to anyone else. Remember that.
The prognosticating angle: Of course this is a big one, with everyone who can get near a keyboard or a microphone anxious to tell you who’s going to win.
I mention this only as an excuse to mention that I may have to abandon my shtick that my predictions are always wrong. Who was it, dear friends, who pegged the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to win the NFC title back in early September? It was I, who have also not missed a playoff-game prognostication since the first day of the preseason.
ESPN has an eight-man panel of experts picking winners each week, and that worthy bunch whiffed mightily Sunday, going 0-for-8 on the NFC Championship Game, picking the Eagles to a man. Joe Theismann, Sean Salisbury and Ron Jaworski are all 7-3 in their playoff-game picks so far, which isn’t bad, not bad at all. It’s almost as good as your humble servant going 8-2.
So who does the goateed seer see hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy Sunday? All will be revealed Friday …