The Oakland Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will contest Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego following comprehensive victories over Tennessee and Philadelphia, respectively, on Sunday night. Ironically, Tampa are coached by Jon Gruden, who left Oakland under a cloud 12 months ago: the Buccaneers gave the Raiders $8m (£5m) and four draft choices to get their man, and their reward is a first Super Bowl berth in the team's 27-year history.
The omens were not promising for the Florida franchise, who had never won a play-off game away from home, who traditionally struggle in cold weather, and who had lost each of their three previous outings in Philadelphia. They made the worst possible start this time as well, allowing the Eagles' Brian Mitchell to return the opening kick-off 75 yards. Two plays later, the home side were in front, Duce Staley scoring in a 20-yard touchdown run.
When Tampa's quarterback Brad Johnson was then intercepted by Bobby Taylor, things looked bleak. Instead of crumbling, however, the Buccaneers stiffened their resolve, and a pair of long drives resulted first in Mike Allstott's one-yard run, then Johnson's nine-yard pass to Keyshawn Johnson, giving the visitors an unexpected 17-10 advantage at half-time.
The Eagles seemed unable to rouse themselves from their torpor. The quarterback Donovan McNabb gave up two costly fumbles and was constantly outplayed by his counterpart. Once of the London Monarchs, Johnson displayed considerable panache, completing 20 of his 33 pass attempts for 259 yards.
Trailing by 10 points and with time running out, McNabb became desperate, and paid the penalty with three minutes remaining. An errant pass was intercepted by the outstanding Ronde Barber, who returned it 92 yards for the final scoring play in a comprehensive 27-10 upset.
"This is the greatest team in the world, and we have the greatest coach in the world," said the club's owner, Malcolm Glazer, the man who had invested heavily to bring Gruden from California to Florida. Now his coach will go back to the West Coast to face the team which lost patience with him following two previously fruitless campaigns.
Many observers were surprised when Oakland's maverick owner, Al Davis, replaced Gruden with the untested Bill Callahan, but the quiet, undemonstrative former offensive line coach has proved a worthy successor. After his side defeated the Tennessee Titans 41-24, Callahan became the first rookie coach to take his team to the championship game since George Seifert achieved the feat with the San Francisco 49ers in 1989.
As ever, the free-scoring Raiders started fast, the quarterback Rich Gannon tossing a pair of touchdowns to Jerry Porter and Charlie Garner. Tennessee, however, are noted for their resilience, responding with a 33-yard pass from Steve McNair to Drew Bennett, followed by McNair's nine-yard run.
Leading 17-14 with two minutes remaining in the first half, the Titans then contrived to throw it all away. First, Robert Holcombe fumbled, resulting in Gannon's short touchdown to Doug Jolley. Then John Simon fumbled the ensuing kick-off, Oakland recovering, and Sebastian Janikowski converting a 43-yard field goal to give the Californians a 24-17 half-time lead.
Tennessee had fluffed their lines, and although the splendid McNair pulled his side to within three points with another spirited touchdown run, the chance had gone. Late touchdown runs from Gannon and Zack Crockett only served to confirm Oakland's dominance.
Super Bowl XXXVII has the makings of a classic. Not only does it pit Gruden against his former team, it will also be a collision of Oakland's league leading offence, against Tampa Bays' top-ranked defence; sufficient drama and intrigue to keep fans of the game spellbound until Sunday.
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