(San Diego) For all the injuries and changes in their secondary, the Raiders defense really hasn't suffered as much as some might expect. Why? Credit an improved defensive line and a trio of linebackers that could be the team's best corps in more than a decade and which could wind up being the difference between a win and a loss in Sunday's Super Bowl.
Oakland lost both of its cornerbacks, Charles Woodson and Tory James, to leg injuries this season. Woodson also missed a good chunk of the season early with a shoulder injury. First-round draft pick Phillip Buchanon didn't even make it halfway into his rookie year before having to be placed on injured reserve with a broken wrist.
There was also a mid-season shake-up at strong safety when starter Derrick Gibson was replaced by Anthony Dorsett.
Oakland won seven of its final eight regular-season games and swept through the first two weeks of the playoffs to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1983 when the franchise was still operating out of Los Angeles.
Much of the credit has gone to the Raiders offense and for good reason. Oakland led the NFL in total offense, has the league's MVP in quarterback Rich Gannon and puts up points by the bushel.
Yet over the second half of the regular season and into the playoffs Oakland's defense has been equally strong despite being without James and Woodson a various times down the stretch. That, says defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan, is a direct result of the Raiders defensive line and linebackers.
''A lot of it is because of the front seven and how they're playing,'' said Bresnahan. ''When you lose one of you're good players, it's not only how well the guy coming in plays but the entire unit has to raise their level of play.''
Offseason moves to acquire tackles John Parrella and Sam Adams helped strengthen Oakland's defensive line and solidified the team's run defense. The addition of Bill Romanowski was equally critical as he helped set the tone and pace for the Raiders other two starting linebackers, Eric Barton and rookie Napoleon Harris.
Those five, along with the rest of Oakland's defense, could be the key factor for the Raiders come Sunday in Super Bowl XXXVII. That's when they'll face an improved Tampa Bay offense that has caught fire in the postseason.
''We didn't bring in a bunch of guys that hadn't been on the field before,'' said Bresnahan. ''These are guys that have played at a high level -- Pro Bowl players, Super Bowl champions -- and I think that helped the learning process.''
''Charles is going to say he is, but my wife says I am. He's young. He doesn't know a lot right now. I'm better looking.'' -- Oakland safety Rod Woodson when asked who is better looking, he or teammate Charles Woodson
''When we drove up and I saw the Raiders emblem on the Super Bowl banner, I shook my head and smiled. I don't know how to explain it. I come to the Super Bowl every year and see the Ravens banner, the Patriots banner, the Broncos banner and all of a sudden to see the Raiders banner up there, it's very special.'' -- Wide receiver Tim Brown
''If people want to pick a fight with the Raiders, we will respond.'' -- Senior assistant Bruce Allen, queried by the press about the team's ongoing litigation issues