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So, we meet again

RAIDERS 41, TITANS 24: With the preliminaries out of the way, Oakland can focus on trying to beat its old coach for the Super Bowl title.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 20, 2003

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Just beat Gruden, baby.

With increasing frequency and volume, the Raiders have made it clear they think they are a better team this season without Jon Gruden as their coach than during the previous four when he was.

Now they have the perfect opportunity to show him.

The Raiders survived a tougher-than-expected battle Sunday against Tennessee 41-24 to win the AFC Championship Game and advance to the Super Bowl against the Gruden's Bucs, giving them a week to further dissect their former coach -- and what couldn't be a more ironic matchup Sunday in San Diego.

"We're here, we're at the Super Bowl," Raiders receiver Jerry Porter said. "If we weren't a more mature or better team, we wouldn't have made it this far. When he was here, did we get there? Proof is in the pudding. He might have been the thing that was holding us back. Who's to say."

The standard line in the Oakland locker room was that the players were just happy to go to the Super Bowl.

But a few acknowledged the obvious, that it will be special to play against the coach who left them in the middle of a February night to take the Tampa Bay job.

"It's going to make it sweeter," said guard Frank Middleton, a former Buc. "We all admit it's going to be sweet. The guy left to go to another team because he thought he had a better opportunity. Now we meet up again at centerfield."

Personal feelings aside, the Tampa Bay-Oakland matchup should make for some interesting strategy since Gruden knows the Raiders and the Raiders know his offense. Plus, it's the league's top-ranked offense against the top-ranked defense.

"We may have somewhat of an advantage," safety Anthony Dorsett said. "But he also understands the type of offense that we run."

"They run our offense," Porter said. "It will be like a scrimmage. A scrimmage that actually means something."

Porter thinks the Raiders might have an edge because they've seen a version of the Bucs defense when playing St. Louis, though the Raiders lost to the Rams 28-13 on Oct. 13.

"We found some things we could do against the Cover 2 defense," he said.

The Raiders tout themselves as the league's most dominant team, but this will be their first trip to the Super Bowl in 19 years, since they beat the Redskins in Tampa in January 1984. (Then again, it will be the Bucs' first trip in 27 years.) Overall, it will be Oakland's fifth Super Bowl appearance; it has won three championships.

The Raiders and Bucs, who were both in the AFC West in Tampa Bay's 1976 inaugural season, have played only once in the past six years, with Oakland winning an ugly 45-0 game late in the 1999 season. The Raiders lead the series 4-1.

The Raiders won Sunday by riding their top-ranked offense, led by league MVP quarterback Rich Gannon, who completed 29-of-41 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 41 yards and another score.

They also made a handful of big defensive and special-teams plays, then sealed the victory with a 2-yard Gannon touchdown run 31/2 minutes into the fourth quarter.

They won in spite of a gutty performance by Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair, and they won in spite of themselves, committing 14 penalties that gave the Titans six first downs.

The Raiders, looking very much like the league's top-ranked offense, drove for touchdowns on their first two possessions.

What was surprising was that the Titans stayed with them, scoring on three of their first four possessions, thanks in part to a series of Oakland penalties, and taking a 17-14 lead with about three minutes left in the first half.

But the game turned in a 90-second blur and the Raiders went to the locker room with a 24-17 halftime lead.

First, Tennessee running back Robert Holcombe fumbled and Gannon struck quickly, hitting Jerry Rice slanting across the middle. Rice took a huge hit from safety Tank Williams and fumbled, but recovered on the 1. Gannon faked a handoff then lobbed the ball to rookie tight end Doug Jolley in the back of the end zone for a 21-17 lead.

Tennessee made another huge mistake when John Simon fumbled on the kickoff return. The Raiders recovered on the 39 and Gannon did a nifty job running for 14 yards on first down. Porter let a sure touchdown pass through his hands and Gannon fumbled the third-down snap, but Sebastian Janikowski added a 43-yard field goal to make it 24-17.

The Raiders made another big play late in the third quarter, breaking through the line to abort a punt, then taking over at the 19 and tacking on a 32-yard Janikowski field goal that extended the lead to 27-17.

The Titans, as has been their character, weren't quite ready to give up, marching back down the field, helped by another Oakland penalty for roughing the passer, and scored when McNair rambled in from 13 yards away.

But the Raiders proved equally resilient, getting a 30-yard kickoff return from Marcus Knight and taking the ball 66 yards on eight plays, capped by Gannon's sprint into the end zone.

They scored again about eight minutes later to eliminate any chance of a Titans comeback.

As much as they want to revel in the moment, the Raiders are going to have to share the stage with Gruden, whether they like it or not.

"Gruden won't take a single snap," Porter said. "Who gives a damn about Gruden? What's he going to do? I don't see him lining up against me one time."

"I think a lot of guys will play up to this media hype and give in to you guys and say something," running back Tyrone Wheatley said. "That's just part of it. Some guys probably do truly have a vendetta against him. For what it's worth, Gruden's not lining up, not putting on shoulder pads, not wearing the helmet. The guys we need to be ready for are Keyshawn Johnson, Brad Johnson, John Lynch, Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice. Those are the guys we need to worry about.

"Everything else about Gruden is just blowing in wind. Don't get me wrong, it makes great material for you guys. You couldn't have plotted a better story. You guys are at home getting your pencils sharpened, buying new legal pads. You guys are ready for it. It works for you guys and it works for the world of sports. It just works. I'm happy it's happening."

How big is the matchup?

"I bet the NFL wishes they could move this back another week so they could pump it up," receiver Tim Brown said. "It's unbelieveable in the first year after he leaves. I know there's going to be a lot of hype, and there's not going to be any way to deflect it."

"It's going to be," Middleton said, "a ticket worth buying."

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