SAN DIEGO, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- The National Football League's No. 1 defense dominated both early and late Sunday night, turning a franchise that once was considered the worst of all time into the champions of Super Bowl XXXVII.
Tampa Bay became the first team in Super Bowl history to score three defensive touchdowns in one game, two of them coming in the final 87 seconds to wipe out Oakland's comeback dreams and give the Buccaneers a wild 48-21 victory over the Raiders.
Quarterback Brad Johnson threw two touchdown passes to Kennan McCardell as part of a mid-game surge and the Buccaneers opened a 34-3 advantage to touch off an early celebration on the Tampa Bay sideline.
Oakland then scored three quick touchdowns to create the possibility of a remrkable rally only to have Derrick Brooks and Dwight Smith return interceptions for touchdowns in the closing moments.
In the first meeting ever of the league's top offense and top defense in a championship game, the defensive side was the clear winner.
"There are a lot of great defenses that came into this game and won it," said Tampa Bay defensive lineman Warren Sapp. "But I don't think any of those teams came and faced an offense like we did today. And we put a stranglehold on them."
Tampa Bay's defense intercepted five passes and sacked Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon five times. Safety Dexter Jackson picked off two passes in the first half, Smith intercepted two more and returned them both for touchdowns and Brooks brought his interception back for a score.
The Buccaneers' offense, meanwhile, took over the game with three touchdown drives on three possessions late in the second quarter and early in the third. Running back Michael Pittman added 124 yards on 29 carries.
The Tampa Bay victory came in the franchise's 27th season and in the Buccaneers' first trip to the Super Bowl. It also came at the end of Jon Gruden's first year as Tampa Bay's head coach, having been traded by Oakland at the end of the 2001 season for two first-round draft picks, two second-round selections and $8 million.
Gruden brought with him an offensive philosophy that began to take hold late in his initial Tampa Bay season and he inherited a defense which carried his team to the Vince Lombardi Trophy
"I'm so happy for the city of Tampa and these great players," Gruden said. "We are going to get a lot better, I can promise you that. This is Tampa Bay's night and they deserve it."
The game carried a note of controversy on the Oakland side when starting center Barret Robbins was dismissed from the team for missing a series of scheduled meetings on the day before the Super Bowl.
There were reports after the game that Robbins was so distraught at not being allowed to compete, his wife checked him into a local hospital.
"The situation with Barrett is irrelevant," said Oakland defensive back Rod Woodson. "No one person wins or loses football games. Nobody on this team played a good game."
Although there were story lines involving Barrett and Gruden associated with the game, the biggest factor was the Tampa Bay defense.
Linemen Simeon Rice, Chartric Darby, Greg Spires and Sapp put constant pressure on Gannon early in the game and the interceptions from the linebacking and secondary corps sealed Oakland's fate.
"I don't know how it always feels for the winners of this game," said Tampa Bay strong safety John Lynch. "But considering where this franchise came from, this is amazing. This team to it to the next level.
"Whether we are the best defense, I don't know. We will leave that to the pundits. But we came out and did what we did all year and I think we will go down as one of the greatest of all time."
Tampa Bay owns the NFL record for most consecutive losses, having dropped the first 26 games in franchise history. But at the end of the 2002 season, the Buccaneers won three playoff games -- equaling the total they had amassed in their previous 26 years.
"This is an incredible day," said Johnson, who completed 18 of 34 passes for 215 yards with two touchdowns.
After Johnson led Tampa Bay to touchdowns on three straight possesions during the second and third quarters, cornerback Smith stepped in front of Jerry Rice, intercepted a pass from Gannon and returned it 44 yards for a score that pushed the Buccaneers' lead to 34-3.
Oakland, however, threw a scare into the Bucs with its three unanswered touchdowns -- one of them coming on a blocked punt and another on the eighth Super Bowl touchdown catch in Rice's career.
The Raiders got the ball back with just over two minutes to play with the slimmest of hopes of pulling off a virtually unbelievable comeback. But linebacker Brooks ended those dreams by recording Tampa Bay's fourth interception of the game and returning it 44 yards for a touchdown with 1:27 remaining.
Smith then added further insult to a long night for the Raiders by recording Tampa Bay's fifth interception and running it back 50 yards for his second score of the game.
The other two interceptions were recorded in the first half by safety Jackson, who wound up representing the defensive unit by being voted the game's most vaulable player.
The Raiders averaged 389 yards per game during the regular season to easily rank as the No. 1 offensive club in the league and in the first half of the Super Bowl, they managed 58 yards and three points -- those coming on a 40-yard field goal from Sebastien Janikowski set up by Charles Woodson's interception at the Tampa Bay 36 on the third play of the game.
Less than three minutes after Oakland broke in front, Tampa Bay tied it on Martin Gramatica's 31-yard field goal. Gramatica put the Buccaneers ahead with a 43-yarder with 11:16 to play in the first half, coming after the first of two interceptions by Jackson.
Before the half was over, Jackson intercepted another pass that led to a two-yard touchdown run by Mike Alstott and Johnson hit McCardell with a five-yard touchdown pass with 30 seconds to go before intermission at the end of a 77-yard drive.
Facing a 20-3 halftime deficit, Oakland ran three plays and punted to start the third quarter and Tampa Bay promptly drove 89 yards over almost eight minutes and scored on an eight-yard throw from Johnson to McCardell.
Just two plays into the ensuing Oakland possession, Smith stepped in front of Rice at the Raiders' 44 and ran untouched for a score.
Oakland then put some unexpected drama into the game with three straight touchdowns. The first came on a 39-yard pass from Gannon to Jerry Porter -- a throw that at first was ruled incomplete and then reversed when referee Bill Carollo ruled that Porter managed to get both feet inbounds in the back of the end zone.
That touchdown came with 2:14 left in the third period and 44 seconds into the fourth quarter, Eric Johnson returned a blocked punt 13 yards. After both Oakland scores, attempts for a two-point conversion failed.
But the touchdowns brought the Raiders to within 34-15 and they climbed six points closer when Gannon threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to Rice. Again, a two-point attempt was no good.
For the third time in four years, this Super Bowl did not produce a touchdown in the first quarter and the way the opening period unfolded, it appeared the record for fewest points in a game might be challenged instead of the 69 points that were eventually scored.
But over the final 10 minutes of the second period, the Buccaneers took command.
Oakland, despite its offensive struggles, was still trailing by just three points when Jackson came up with his second interception with 10:06 to play in the first half. That set up the Buccaneers at the Oakland 45 and the Raiders managed to force a punt.
The punt, however, caused the Raiders to start at their own 11-yard line and for the fifth straight possession, they were unable to pick up a first down.
Shane Lechler was standing on his own goal line when he punted the ball away and his boot carried to the Tampa Bay 48. From there, Tampa Bay's Karl Williams embarked on a 25-yard run and the Buccaneers promptly put together an offensive burst that lasted the rest of the quarter.
Starting at the Oakland 27, it took Tampa Bay just four plays to score the game's first touchdown. The biggest of those four plays was a 21-yard run by Michael Pittman, who beat an Oakland blitz and weaved his way to the two-yard line.
Alstott scored two plays later.
After the kickoff, Oakland managed the only first down of the second quarter, but wound up punting from its own 48. Tampa Bay then seized command of the contest with a 77-yard march that required 10 plays and took 3:15 off the clock.
Oakland contributed three five-yard penalties on the march and the Buccaneers faced just one third down along the way. Alstott converted that one when he bulled ahead for three yards to the 17 on third-and-one.
Alstott caught the ball in the flat on the next play, broke a tackle and rumbled to the five-yard line. That set up Johnson's five-yard touchdown pass to McCardell, who spun away from cornerback Charles Woodson in the right corner of the end zone and hauled in Johnson's head-high bullet pass.
Gannon, the league's MVP this season, was 24 of 44 for 272 yards and two touchdowns.
But his five interceptions kept a Super Bowl tradition going. Only twice has a team turned the ball over more times than the opposition and won a Super Bowl.
"We got behind the eight ball in the first half and could never establish an offensive rhythm," said Oakland Coach Bill Callahan. "I don't think we played the way we are capable of playing."