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NFL PLAYOFFS CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS

Swashbuckling Super Bowl

Raider veterans are ringleaders, and they play like youngsters in 41-24 victory over Tennessee

January 20, 2003|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — It took 19 years, six coaching changes, three conference title games and two different Coliseums for the Oakland Raiders to arrive at this one magical moment.

They're going back to the Super Bowl -- where they will face, of all teams, Jon Gruden's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

As the silver confetti snowed down Sunday night, Jerry Rice, who has three Super Bowl rings, did a gleeful dance through the north end zone. Bill Romanowski, who has four rings, delivered smothering bear hugs on the sideline. And Tim Brown, a career-long Raider venturing into uncharted territory, used a towel to wipe away tears.

"It's like my whole career went right in front of my eyes when I was walking off the field after we scored the last touchdown," said Brown, who had a game-high nine catches in the 41-24 victory over the Tennessee Titans that only turned into a rout in the fourth quarter. "All the way back to my rookie year, to the year I was hurt, to the next year, and all those other years. It's amazing what you remember at funny times."

For years a franchise hopelessly stuck in the past, the Raiders finally have a present to savor. On the same field where they lost the AFC championship to Baltimore two years earlier, they simply refused to let this chance waft away like Super Bowl smoke rings.

"To me, it's all about winning," said Romanowski, the former 49er and Bronco who, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, now wants one for the thumb. "It's all about a group of guys taking the field and saying, 'I don't care what you're gonna do or what kind of plays you're gonna run, we're gonna win.' That's what this group of guys has done."

The Titans landed their best shot. They came into the game having won 11 of 12 and dead-set on returning to the Super Bowl for the second time in four seasons. Quarterback Steve McNair passed for a touchdown, then ran for two more, showing the uninitiated why he deserved some most-valuable-player consideration.

But the Raiders had an answer in Rich Gannon, who actually won the award. Using a pass-at-all-costs strategy that worked so well in Pittsburgh early in the season, Gannon directed a touchdown drive on the opening possession, weathered some rough patches in the second and third quarters, then broke open the game in the fourth.

Other than scrambles by Gannon, Oakland ran the ball only once through the first three quarters. And, just when the Titans started to get used to that, the Raiders resorted to the run. They logged 16 carries in the fourth quarter -- one of which was a Gannon kneel-down at the end -- and only eight passes.

When Gannon tore around the right side for a two-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, he put the Raiders up by 10. Later, with 3:25 remaining, Zack Crockett bashed and spun his way to a seven-yard score, then struck a muscleman pose as a lightning storm of flashbulbs popped from every corner of the stadium.

"We knew we had the cat in the bag when our offense scored its last touchdown," defensive end Regan Upshaw said. "I think the excitement was then, more so than at the end of the game. That was just crossing the t's and dotting the i's."

There's more work to be done. The Raiders will bring the NFL MVP and the top-ranked passing offense to San Diego to face the league's top-ranked defense and -- most compelling -- their former coach. Gruden left the Raiders for Tampa Bay after last season, allowing the Buccaneers to "trade" for him and free him from the final year of his contract.

Tackle Lincoln Kennedy, who earlier in the week told two reporters Gruden had "a Napoleonic complex," was more circumspect Sunday when it came to Chucky-bashing.

"Stop it, stop it with the Gruden," Kennedy announced a large gathering of reporters clustered around his locker. "This is not about Gruden. No, it's not about Gruden. This team has not been to the Super Bowl. There are very few people in this locker room who have been to the Super Bowl. Give me at least 24 hours to be in the joy. This is not about Gruden. This is not about Tampa Bay. Please, stop it."

Unless he pulls a Marcel Marceau or duct tapes his mouth, Kennedy probably will be making that same impassioned plea roughly 5,000 times this week. Because the Gruden vs. Al Davis theme makes this one of the most plot-rich Super Bowls in memory. Faced with the prospect of a Tampa Bay-Tennessee matchup, a Super Snorer, the NFL was in the strange position of rooting mightily for the Raiders.

"I know the NFL wishes they could move this back another week so they could pump it up," Brown said. "It's unbelievable for this to happen like that. I know there's going to be a lot of hype. There's not going to be any way to deflect it. You're just going to have to deal with it and talk about it."

Kennedy, the biggest man in the Raider locker room, was focused on bigger things. Bigger than Davis. Bigger than Gruden. Something big enough to fit around his bratwurst-sized finger.

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