The key to the outcome of Super Bowl XXXVII, however, might be Oakland's rebuilt defense against Tampa Bay's improving offense. The Raiders entered the season with just two returning starters, cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive end Tony Bryant.
Oakland's defense had its rough times adjusting to one another early in the season but steadily gelled and became the No. 3 ranked defense against the run, where teams gouged the Raiders last season.
During a four game losing streak at midseason, the Raiders gave up an average of 153 yards on the ground and 24.5 points. During its stretch of winning nine of 10 games, Oakland has yielded an average of 78.4 yards rushing and 13.4 points. Even the rushing yards figure is misleading because Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair rushed for 53 yards against the Raiders in their 41-24 AFC Title Game win over the Titans. Oakland also finished the season tied for second in the AFC in turnover margin at plus-12.
With all the talk of how dominant Tampa's defense is, one might think the Raiders would get perturbed hearing all that talk.
"I don't take offense to it," Raiders outside linebacker Bill Romanowski said. "They've earned that reputation. I believe in this defense. I think we've got a bunch of great players. I know we'll take the field Sunday and we'll be ready to play."
Tampa Bay's offense has encountered its growing pains under Gruden, who is in his first season as the Bucs coach after being in Oakland the previous four seasons. In the first eight games of the season, the Bucs offense averaged 15.2 points, 90.2 rushing yards while its quarterbacks threw six touchdowns and five interceptions.
In the previous 10 games, Tampa's offense has averaged 23 points, 101.4 rushing yards while its quarterbacks have thrown 18 touchdowns and five interceptions. Don't bet on the Raiders underestimating the Bucs.
"They're in the Super Bowl ain't they," Woodson said. "You can't underestimate them. They've been making plays all year. They just hadn't been getting the recognition. They played a great game against one of the stingiest defenses in the NFL."
Woodson was referring to the Bucs 27-10 win over Philadelphia in the NFC Title Game.
Vince D'Adamo can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org