SAN DIEGO -- For all the intriguing matchups through 36 Super Bowls, the one that never occurred was No. 1 vs. No. 1. On Sunday, that changes.
The Oakland Raiders' dynamic, ultradangerous offense that has trampled nearly everyone faces the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' miserly defense, which has stymied almost everybody. It is a confrontation so juicy, so delicious, that the players are looking forward to it as much as the rest of America.
"I'd pay to see it," said Raiders defensive tackle Sam Adams, who knows all about immovable objects - he won a Super Bowl two years ago with the stingy Baltimore Ravens. "No. 1 vs. No. 1. Who could ask for more?"
Not the viewing public, which eagerly anticipates watching Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Brooks against NFL MVP Rich Gannon. Jerry Rice, merely the most accomplished receiver in history, against Brian Kelly, the league leader in interceptions. Frank Middleton, the mouthy 330-pound former Buccaneer, trying to block Warren Sapp, the mouthy, 300-pound All-Pro Buccaneers defensive tackle.
"We're like an inferno, more heat than you can stand," Sapp said, gesturing as if flames were rising around him. "It's like we have guys running around with one gallon of gasoline in their pockets and then setting it off."
Want more? How about Charlie Garner, the Raiders' versatile, hard-charging tailback, and John Lynch, the Buccaneers' venerable hard-hitting strong safety?
"It's only fitting to have the top offense against the top defense," Lynch said. "I consider this the best year ever in the NFL, with all the wild stuff and overtime games. And then, for the first time, you have this."
You also have Al Davis, the maverick owner of the Raiders, and the Glazers, the virtually anonymous owners of the Buccaneers. It was Davis who extracted two first-round draft choices and two seconds, plus $8 million, from the Glazers a year ago to free Jon Gruden to skip from one pirate ship to another.
Gruden now coaches the Buccaneers, but he helped put together what has become a nearly unstoppable offensive machine in Oakland.
Bill Callahan, whom Gruden hired with the Raiders, now oversees the AFC champions, in their first Super Bowl in 19 seasons. Tampa Bay is in its first ever.
And each side brings the very best unit: Oakland's star-studded offense and Tampa Bay's headliner-filled defense.
Consider that Rice, at 40, had one of his best seasons of an unparalleled career, with 92 catches for 1,211 yards and seven touchdowns. Or that Tim Brown, who did not have his best season, still caught 81 for 930 yards. And Brown has really come on in the postseason with a team-high 12 catches.
Garner not only rushed for 962 yards (5.3 average) and scored seven times - he certainly would have broken 1,000 yards had the Raiders not thrown so often - but he caught 91 passes, most by any running back in the league.
There's more. Third receiver Jerry Porter has become a real threat, averaging 17.5 yards on 10 playoff catches, with two TDs. Zack Crockett is a force near the goal line. Lincoln Kennedy, the massive tackle, is an All-Pro having his finest season. Center Barret Robbins also is an All-Pro.
"Honestly, we're at the peak of our game right now," Kennedy said, "and it is the right time. The exact right time."
Ah, but is there ever a right time to meet the Buccaneers' fearsome defense? It has allowed 16 points in the postseason, and it yielded a league-low 196 points, 45 fewer than any other team.
End Simeon Rice led the NFC with 15 1/2 sacks. Linebacker Brooks ran back three interceptions and a fumble for touchdowns. Kelly had eight pickoffs and he isn't even the Bucs' best cornerback. Ronde Barber is.
Then there is Sapp, who has a way of taking control of a game even if he is not collecting sacks and a huge number of tackles. Forget the arithmetic - Sapp can terrorize opponents without piling up the stats.
"He taught me a lot when I was in Tampa," said Middleton, who can expect some more lessons Sunday. "It will be like old friends having fun."
Well, not exactly. How many buddies slam each other around for a couple of hours as they try to lay claim to the other's territory?
The winner will enter some very special territory. Should the Raiders post their season's average of 28 points - it's up to 35 1/2 in the playoffs - they likely will earn their fourth NFL title. And with it, they will be compared to the great offensive juggernauts of Super Bowls past.
If the Bucs allow their season's average of 12.2 points, they figure to win their first NFL crown. And talk of their defense ranking with the 2000 Ravens or 1985 Bears will surface.
"Comparisons, comparisons - between the white lines is all that matters," Simeon Rice said. "Everything else is secondary.
"When it really comes down to it, the world could blow up, but you still got to do what you got to do."
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