|Raiders vs. Bucs should be a classic
By John Clayton
After a season in which ABC showed Monday Night blowouts, Al Michaels and John Madden finally caught a break. The matchup everyone hoped for arrived. The Raiders get to play their old coach, Jon Gruden. Al Davis should be named executive of the year for trading Gruden to Tampa Bay for two first-rounders, two second-rounders and $8 million.
There is only one problem. Gruden could devastate the Raider Nation by winning Super Bowl XXXVII. Will the coach who invigorated a franchise with his discipline be able to spoil a three-year buildup to earn some Super Bowl rings for stars such as Tim Brown and Rich Gannon?
"I bet you the league wishes they could move this game back another week so they could pump it up," Raiders receiver Tim Brown said. "It's unbelievable. The first year after Gruden leaves and we are playing him. I know there is going to be a lot of hype. And there's not going to be any way to deflect it. We're just going to have to deal with it and talk about it. I should be a fun week."
And it should be a fun game. The Raiders strength is passing the football. The Bucs have the best pass defense numbers in the past two decades. During the regular season, opponents had a 48.4 quarterback rating against the Bucs and Tampa Bay had 31 interceptions. They allowed only 10 passing touchdowns.
"It's going to be a ticket worth buying," Raiders guard Frank Middleton said. "It's going to be a No. 1 offense against the No. 1 defense. Everybody wanted it. And now everybody is going to see it."
Ratings should skyrocket because this game is personal. Some of Gruden's former assistants felt abandoned by Gruden's quick departure.
Most outsiders believe the Bucs play a simple "Cover 2" zone that minimizes big plays. They are wrong. The Bucs defense has been together for six seasons. They can switch between "Cover 2" to "Cover 3" to Man-to-Man and they do it after quarterbacks call their audibles.
"We change tempo a little bit and try to get looks so we can get plays dialed up," Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon said. "We are a team that can be more balanced. We ran the ball well in the last month of the season. We didn't do it Sunday, but we will do a better job running the ball next week."
The Raiders had only one called running play in the first three quarters of Sunday's 41-24 AFC Championship victory over the Titans. Gannon scrambled out of the pocket eight times in the game and scored a touchdown.
But will they learn from Sunday's Eagles loss to the Bucs where the Eagles and Donovan McNabb tried to throw instead of run against the Bucs. It's hard to pass against the Bucs, and those who do usually have bad days.
The Raiders have the type of powerful big offensive line that can wear down the Bucs lighter defensive line if they elect to run the ball. There is a subplot to that possibility. Middleton is a former Buccaneer who the team didn't want to re-sign two years ago. Middleton, the left guard, matches up against Warren Sapp.
"They made fun of me and didn't think I could get them to the Super Bowl," Middleton said. "Now, they've got to beat me to get there. Sapp and I have had a lot of battles in practice. I miss the guy. He's a warrior. I'm a warrior. It's like two pit bulls going at it. Just put us in the ring."
One worry for the Raiders will be penalties. On Sunday, the Raiders were penalized 14 times for 127 yards. They've had seven games this season in which they've had 10 or more penalties.
The crew of Ed Hochuli called the game close. Cornerback Charles Woodson was called three times for either interference or holding. Three Raiders defenders were called for late hits. There were false starts, delay of games and illegal shift on offense.
"They called it pretty tight, but my play out there was unacceptable for my team," Woodson said. "I have to step up my game next week."
Of course, the Raiders expect the extra penalties. That's right. For the next week, you will hear plenty about Raider paranoia.
"They called so many penalties on us today, but we've been scrutinized all year because we walked out on officials in training camp. Anytime you do something like that, you know you are going to get more calls. It's like it was in the old days -- the Raiders against the league."
In training camp, the Raiders walked out on an officials presentation because of their anger for losing last year's playoff game against the Patriots because of the Tuck Rule call on quarterback Tom Brady.
"I don't think the league is ever rooting for the Raiders," Middleton said. "There is something about our owner that the league doesn't like. A couple of times today, the officials could have kept their flags in their pockets. A lot of the Titans drives were aided by penalties. They must have taken an acting class. I don't think the league likes to see us."
But the fans do. By the second quarter in the Network Associates Coliseum, one fan mounted a "Gru Who?" sign in reference Gruden. When Gruden's name was announced during the AFC Championship celebration, fans booed.
The other aspect of this game will be the play of quarterback Brad Johnson, who wins games because of his smarts and toughness. The Raiders blitzed more in the second half against Steve McNair to pressure him. Several of the blitzes were picked up but the by fourth quarter, middle linebacker Napoleon Harris forced McNair into making more scrambles.
Gruden versus Bill Callahan will be a game of chess. The Bucs versus the Raiders will be a verbal and emotional war. Many of the big name talkers are in this one -- Sapp, Bill Romanowski, Keyshawn Johnson, Charles Woodson.
It should be a classic.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.