Start preparing the parade route, Tampa Bay. And while you're at it, start thinking up a fancy nickname for your football team's defense. After 27 long, frustrating and often embarrassing seasons, the Buccaneers became Super Bowl champions for the first time Sunday night. At last the source of an immense pride instead of the butt of comedians' jokes, the Bucs wiped away the last remnants of a loser image by routing the Oakland Raiders in a convincing 48-21 Super Bowl XXXVII victory at Qualcomm Stadium.
``I've never been a champion like this before, obviously, so the feeling is all new to me,'' safety John Lynch said. ``But when you consider where we've come from as an organization, I can't imagine anyone feeling any better than I do now. I remember when I first came into the league in 1993, I thought we could win a Super Bowl then. I look back now and I realize I was pretty naive. But that's one reason why this is so special now.''
Though billed as a titanic first-ever Super Bowl matchup between the league's best defense and offense, the game many anticipated didn't materialize until the final 16 minutes as the Bucs turned their Super Bowl debut into a defensive clinic. Using the scheme of 62-year-old defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the Bucs handed the Raiders their first loss in a Super Bowl game since Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers did it in Super Bowl II, limiting them to 269 yards and returning three of their Super Bowl-record five interceptions for touchdowns.
The only blemishes on the defense's report card were a pair of long touchdown passes, one of 39 yards to Jerry Porter in the third quarter and one for 48 yards to Jerry Rice in the fourth. By that time, though, the Bucs already had built a mountain-like 31-point lead. It's a good thing, too. For the Raiders also scored a late second-half touchdown by blocking a Tom Tupa punt and returning it 13 yards for another touchdown.
With the exception of those plays, the Bucs dominated - on both sides of the line of scrimmage. While their defense limited the Raiders to a season-low 11 first downs and sacked quarterback Rich Gannon five times, the offense shredded the Raiders defense for 365 yards. ``We felt like we had a good bead on them going into the game,'' Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson said. ``We were tough up front, didn't take a sack and we ran the ball well.''
Michael Pittman, who grew up in San Diego and led his Mira Mesa high school team to a junior varsity championship as a sophomore, did most of the running, accounting for 124 yards on 29 carries. ``Michael had one of his best games of the season for us,'' Johnson said. ``He really stepped it up.''
That performance earned Pittman several game MVP votes, but that honor went to free safety Dexter Jackson, who sparked the Bucs' rout by grabbing the first two Tampa Bay interceptions in the first half. Nickel back Dwight Smith also had two interceptions, returning both for touchdowns to set a Super Bowl record. Linebacker Derrick Brooks had the other, also returning it for a score to cap one of the best defensive efforts in Super Bowl history.
In addition to the records they set for interceptions and interceptions returned for touchdowns, the Bucs also set Super Bowl records for most yards gained on interceptions and fewest rushing first downs allowed. It was an effort many believe validated the Bucs defense as one of the greatest of all time. ``You've got to talk about us is the same sense as the 2000 Ravens and [Pittsburgh Steelers Steel] Curtain,'' defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. ``But those teams never had to do what we had to do. None of them had to come in here and try to beat the best offense in the league.``
The Raiders seldom looked like the NFL's best offense. Their 269 total yards was more than 100 lower than their regular-season average and their 19 net yards rushing was a season low. ``It was no surprise to me that their defense played well,'' Raiders coach Bill Callahan said. ``I thought their defense carried them all year long.''
The defense certainly carried the Bucs through the early stages of Sunday's game. After a Charles Woodson interception led to a Sebastian Janikowski field goal and a 3-0 Raiders lead, the Bucs quickly shut Oakland down. During a 24-play span that began midway through the first quarter and ended at halftime, the Bucs allowed just 48 yards while sacking Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon three times and intercepting him twice. ``During the regular season, teams didn't try to go downfield against us too often,'' said Jackson, who had both first half picks. ``That plays into our strength and we took advantage of it today.''
The Bucs took advantage by turning the first of Jackson's picks into three points, the result of a Martin Gramatica field goal that gave them a 6-3 lead with 11:16 to play in the second quarter. The second pick almost went to waste. But after the Raiders went three-and-out, the Bucs got excellent field position on Karl Williams' punt return to the Raiders 27. The drive culminated with Mike Alstott's 2-yard rumble into the end zone for a 13-3 lead with 6:24 left. ``Once we dig a hole for you, we're pretty good at dragging you into it and throwing the dirt on you,'' Sapp said.
It wasn't just the Bucs defense that buried the Raiders. Tampa Bay's offense, which has improved steadily during the season, also had a hand in the burial. Late in the first half, it mounted a 10-play, 77-yard march that ended when Brad Johnson hit Keenan McCardell with a 5-yard touchdown pass. Then, in the third quarter, it marched 89 yards for another Johnson to McCardell TD. The Bucs appeared to be wrapping the game up at that point, but the Raiders struck back quickly, scoring on the two long passes to Porter and Rice and the blocked punt. ``We got a little loose there for a minute but it wasn't anything we couldn't control or shut off,'' Sapp said.
The Bucs proved that in the final quarter, when Smith and Brooks returned their interceptions for touchdowns, finishing off the rout. ``They got a few points but they never really broke our cushion,'' Smith said. ``When it was time for us to lock down and play, we did.''