It's Oakland's canny, precise RICH GANNON (who celebrates his 36th birthday on Sunday) in his 14th NFL season against fresh-faced, TOM BRADY (24) of New England, in his second season. That's only a 12-year experience difference! But challenges like that didn't seem to frazzle Brady this year. Having thrown all of three passes as a rookie, he took over for injured starter DREW BLEDSOE when the team was 0-2 and proceeded to lead it to wins in 11 of its next 14 games – and the Pats' first AFC Eastern Division title since 1997. In the process, the Patriots joined the Bears as 2001 teams to go from "worst to first" in their divisions – from last place to a division title.
The Raiders – the only team this year to repeat as division champions – are directed by the perfectionist Gannon, the first Oakland quarterback to lead the AFC in passing (95.5) since KEN STABLER (103.4) in 1976. Gannon throws to two future Pro Football Hall of Famers – wide receivers JERRY RICE and TIM BROWN. Rice comes off a spectacular Wild Card game against the New York Jets. His 183-yard effort (for one TD) was the 10th best receiving performance in NFL playoff history and third best in Oakland postseason history. Rice is the only player with two of the top 10 receiving performances in playoff history (215 yards vs. Cincinnati in Super Bowl XXIII).
"You've got to save your best performances for when they matter the most," says the 39-year-old Rice, who became the oldest player in playoff history to score a touchdown, and oldest with a 100-yard receiving game.
The Patriots long-ball threat is wideout TROY BROWN. The nine-year veteran out-ranked Rice and Tim Brown this year in catches (101) and receiving yards (1,199), finishing fourth in the AFC in the categories. He and his teammates are well-rested.
"Getting a bye week in the playoffs is like a win," Brown says. "We get to play in the second round, just like Oakland. But we can play it on our field, in front of our home crowd. We need to use all of that to our advantage. We need to control the game and keep their offense off the field. It's not hard to figure out what we need to do. We need to execute it."