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Super Bowl XXXVII

Defense snarls as its potential legend awaits

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 26, 2003


SAN DIEGO -- Open the gates.

Let them smell the prize.

Unleash the beasts, because the hunt is on.

It is time. Time to get a ring. Time to establish a legacy. Time to leave the Raiders shaking their heads like all those other bumfuzzled offenses in their wake.

Today belongs to the defensive players of the Tampa Bay Bucs. Turn them loose. Let them snarl.

There is a game to be played. There is a prize to be won. There is a memory to ensure. Turn hope over to them, then. Let them guard the day.

For a week, they have smiled and joked and shrugged. As a group, the Bucs' defense does that pretty well, too. They can throw some words around, make you think, make you grin.

What they do best, however, is swarm. They stand in front of an electrical offense, and they turn off the switch. They listen to everyone talk about the unstoppable, and they stop it. They hear about the whizzing gears and the buzzing sprockets and the shining gizmos, and they throw a wrench in and listen to the engine shut down.

Today is their day. Today, they have a chance to show the nation, the world, what they have believed for some time: When it comes to football on their side of the line, they do it as well as anyone ever has.

There is a certain viciousness to the defense, and a certain vanity. Earlier this week, a reporter asked safety John Lynch about how much pressure the Raiders' offense was going to put on the Bucs.

For a second, Lynch's eyes went cold, and his voice dropped to a serious tone.

"The way we think of it," he said. "We're going to put pressure on them."

Such is the nature of this defense, a little viciousness and a little vanity. They're a day's work. And they know it.

After today, perhaps the world will know it, too. Yes, today's prize is the Super Bowl. Teams earn the mark of greatness on a grand stage. Perform today, and no one will forget.

"We've got the finest defense in the NFL over the last six years," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "But championships are what build legacies. That's what we're here for. History will judge you on how you perform in games like this. That's what we are going for."

Remember the Steel Curtain? It won its respect in the Super Bowl. The great Ravens' defense of 2000? The great Bears defense of '85? It always has been that way. From the Doomsday Defense of Dallas to the No-Names of Miami, it was the Super Bowl that validated the reputations.

"Making our mark in history is not our No. 1 priority," Lynch said. "Our No. 1 priority is to win a world championship. But we are a very prideful group. We have worked very, very hard to establish a standard; to be the best and keep a legacy is important to us. We have that opportunity."

How can you shut down this Raiders offense, that spread-the-field, expose-the-holes, whiz-bang fireworks show? They are nitroglycerin in a juggler's ball, waiting to explode at the next opportunity.

Gee. How familiar.

"Making our mark in history is not our No. 1 priority," Lynch said. "Our No. 1 priority is to win a world championship. But we are a very prideful group. We have worked very, very hard to establish a standard; to be the best and keep a legacy is important to us. We have that opportunity."

That's the thing about the Bucs. They seem to run into one of these point-a-minute machines every three weeks or so. There were the Rams and the Falcons and the Vikings. The 49ers and the Packers and the Eagles. If anyone asks, the bones are stacked in a room at RayJay.

This is one more reason to feel pretty good about the Bucs' chances. They have heard a lot about just how good the Raiders are. This is great news, because the Bucs seem to take great umbrage at such perceptions.

"We're pretty good, too," Lynch said.

Nothing against the Raiders who, frankly, are a day's work. Jerry Porter can score on any play. Charlie Garner is a load. Jerry Rice is the best receiver in history. The offense is a brawling bunch of bikers.

How can you question the Bucs defense, however? How can you not expect the soft-talking Derrick Brooks and the loud-talking Sapp and the jumble-talking Simeon Rice to show up big?

The Raiders have not seen a team that can answer their speed the way this one can. Defenses that play a similar style, Miami and St. Louis, drove the Raiders crazy. Remember history. Great defenses always drive great offenses crazy.

That's a pretty good prize, history. Maybe you think the '85 Bears, with Hampton and Singletary and the innovation called the 46 defense were better. Maybe you remember the '00 Ravens with Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware, who shut off oxygen. But even to be compared to such company is a compliment.

"I sure hope (it validates the Bucs)," general manager Rich McKay said. "They deserve it. When you look over the past six years, you're going to see some awfully good numbers. I don't know how many teams can say that over that many years.

"But I do think they accept the premise, that until you win the championship, you're not going to be viewed as special. You are viewed as very good. You are viewed at times as great. but special requires the championship. I think they have become very determined to try to get over that little hump."

Amazing what the Super Bowl does to a reputation. Has anyone written poetry about the Purple People Eaters lately? That Minnesota defense of the late '60s and early '70s was pretty good until its annual Super Bowl flogging.

On the other hand, there are the Ravens. Lynch pointed out to his teammates this week that, statistically, the Ravens weren't even the No. 1 defense in the NFL that season. Tennessee was. Yet, the Ravens are considered as good as anyone ever has been.

As for the Bucs? Sapp and Brooks look as if they're headed toward the Hall of Fame. A Super Bowl would ensure it. It would also help the case of Lynch, and possibly Rice. Another championship, and Barber could get support. Since the Super Bowl began, that has been the formula. Super Bowl winners get several Hall of Famers, losers get a couple, and those who don't make it better be pretty darn good.

"The jury is still out on where we stand," Rice said. "After we win this game, we can compare with the legends of the past."

It will take some doing. The Bucs are playing the biggest game in their history, against the best offense in the NFL, and they're the underdogs. There are Hall of Famers to the left of them, Pro Bowlers to the right and an MVP in front of them.

In other words, it sounds as if the Bucs have the Raiders right where they want them.

This is their day. This is their game.

Now, they just have to take it.

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