Oakland vs. Tampa Bay in Super Bowl
SAN DIEGO, Jan. 20 (UPI) -- The matchup for Super Bowl XXXVII was set Sunday and it will be unlike any other in the history of the NFL's championship game.
Not only will the No. 1 offensive team in the league be playing the No. 1 defensive team, the central figure in a coaching soap opera from last season will find himself in the spotlight once more.
Cornerback Ronde Barber finished off a spectacular effort by that top-ranked defense by returning an interception 92 yards for a touchdown with 3:12 remaining, sending the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to pro football's biggest game for the first time with a 27-10 victory over the homestanding Philadelphia Eagles.
A few hours later in Oakland, Rich Gannon threw three touchdown passes and ran for another score to live up to his own MVP standards and carry the Raiders to their first AFC championship in 19 years with a 41-24 win over the Tennessee Titans.
What makes next Sunday's matchup in San Diego so intriguing is that Jon Gruden left as Oakland's coach following last season to go to Tampa Bay. Gruden had a rocky relationship with some of the Raiders and his departure was not surprising.
What was surprising, however, was that the Raiders were able to get so much from Tampa Bay for his services. The Buccaneers dealt out four draft picks and $8 million to get Gruden.
A 71-yard pass from Brad Johnson to Joe Jurevicius gave Tampa Bay the momentum late in the first period of the NFC championship game and led to a go-ahead touchdown. The Buccaneers' defense took over from there, producing three turnovers and thoroughly dominating a Philadelphia team that was a touchdown favorite.
The day was set up perfectly for the Eagles, who played for the final time in Veterans Stadium on a frigid afternoon warmed up by a typically boistrous Philadelphia crowd. But after the Eagles scored a mere 52 seconds into the contest, the Buccanners' offense seized control and their defense smothered Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Philadelphia lost one step short of the Super Bowl for the second straight year, falling to St. Louis on the road in the NFC title contest last season, 29-24. San Francisco was the last team to lose two straight conference championship games, doing so both times to Dallas at the end of the 1992 and 1993 seasons.
The Buccaneers had been one of nine existing franchises that had not won a Super Bowl trip and they did so in the first year on the job for Coach Jon Gruden. Philadelphia had ended Tampa Bay's season each of the last two years in the wild card round -- both of those games having been played at The Vet.
Gannon was able to outperform Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair in a shootout that revolved around three turnovers by the Titans -- two of them coming late in the first half and the other at the end of their second possession of the third quarter.
Those miscues led to 13 Oakland points, wiped out a Tennessee lead and led to the Raiders' ninth win in 10 games. Tennessee had overcome a 1-4 start to move within one victory of its second Super Bowl trip in four years.
Gannon, named the league's MVP this season for completing 67 percent of his passes for 4,689 yards and 26 touchdowns, drove the Raiders to scores on their first two possessions Sunday night. He hit Jerry Porter with a three-yard throw at the end of a 69-yard march and then found Charlie Garner with a 12-yarder to finish off an 85-yard drive.
Nevertheless, the Titans owned a 17-14 lead and had the ball in the final moments of the first half -- having a chance to add to their lead and also in position to receive the opening kickoff in the second half.
But Tennessee running back Robert Holcombe fumbled the ball away at his own 16 with 1:28 to play in the half and two plays later Gannon threw his third scoring pass of the game, a one-yarder to Doug Jolley with 60 seconds left before intermission.
That gave Oakland the lead for good and when John Simon fumbled the ensuing kickoff return, Oakland was able to tack on a 43-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski to make it 24-17. The Raiders' lead would have been greater had not Porter dropped a pass in the end zone, leaving Oakland having to settle for the Janikowski field goal on the final play of the half.
The Titans added to their woes early in the second half when punter Craig Hentrich was unable to get off a kick before an overwhelming Oakland rush got to him. Tennessee turned the ball over at its own 19, leading to a Jankiowski field goal of 43 yards.
Els wins second straight
Els became the first player in 14 years to win the first two events of the PGA Tour season Sunday, defeating Aaron Baddeley with an improbable birdie on the second playoff hole at the Sony Open.
Els rolled in a 55-foot putt from off the 10th green before Baddeley narrowly missed his 20-foot birdie try. The two had birdied the par-5 18th to prolong the playoff.
Ranked second in the world, Els rallied from a two-shot deficit before winning for the second time in as many weeks. He claimed the season-opening Mercedes Championships at Kapalua before claiming the first full-field event of the year.
The South African star, who has four PGA Tour wins in the last 10 months, became the first player since Steve Jones in 1989 to claim the first two events of the year.
The two quick wins give Els $1.7 million and gives Woods a hill to climb when he returns to action. The world's No. 1 player has sat out the early part of the PGA Tour schedule after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.
Mavericks lose third straight
SEATTLE, Jan. 20 (UPI) -- Rashard Lewis scored four of his 19 points in the final 43 seconds as Seattle handed Dallas its third straight loss, 85-81.
It is the first losing streak of the season for the Mavericks.
The Sonics won eight of their first 10 games this season before losing 19 of the next 27. They lost a season-high six straight before Friday's overtime win over Memphis and used stifling defense to shut down the slumping Mavericks.
Dallas opened the season with 14 straight victories and has not relinquished the league's best record.
Michael Finley hit a three-pointer with 59 seconds left to forge an 81-81 tie. Lewis responded with a fallaway jumper and buried two clutch free throws with 10 seconds to go as the Sonics snapped a four-game slide to the Mavs.
Finley finished with 16 points and Dirk Nowitzki added 15, 14 rebounds and six assists for Dallas, which scored only 15 points in the fourth quarter and 37 in the second half.
In the only other NBA game played Sunday, Orlando downed Toronto, 101-93.
Vancouver whips Detroit
DETROIT, Jan. 20 (UPI) -- Dan Cloutier made 30 saves Sunday night, stopping a penalty shot in the process, giving Vancouver a 4-1 decision over Detroit.
Henrik Sedin recorded two assists as the Canucks recorded their second straight win over the Red Wings in a clash of Western Conference division leaders.
Cloutier stopped all 20 shots he faced over the final 40 minutes. He denied Tomas Holmstrom on a penalty shot with 3:38 remaining to preserve a 4-1 lead and secure Vancouver's third victory in four games.
On Friday, the Canucks also recorded a 4-2 road win against the Chicago Blackhawks in another battle between Western Conference foes.
Holmstrom gave Detroit a 1-0 lead 3:20 into the contest, but the Red Wings lost for the third time in five games.
Other NHL results: New York Islanders 4, Atlanta 1; Philadelphia 4, New York Rangers 2.
Wake Forest stays unbeaten at home
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C., Jan. 20 (UPI) -- Josh Howard scored 30 points Sunday night to help 20th-ranked Wake Forest hold on for a 73-66 victory over Georgia Tech.
The Deamon Deacons improved to 10-0 at home, led by Howard's dominant performance. The senior forward made eight of 14 shots and three of four three-pointers while his teammates combined to shoot 13 of 40, including just one of 14 from behind the arc.
Howard also made 11 of 12 free throws for Wake Forest (12-1, 2-1 ACC), which outscored Georgia Tech at the line, 27-10.
The Deamon Deacons also held a 48-38 rebounding advantage.
It was the only game Sunday involving a top 25 team.
Miller regains World Cup lead
WENGEN, Switzerland, Jan. 20 (UPI) -- American Bode Miller finished only 11th in a World Cup slalom Sunday, but he regained the lead in the overall point standings.
Italy's Giorgio Rocca collected the first World Cup victory of his career while Japan's Akira Sasaki finished a stunning second place in the first slalom he ever completed.
Rocca put together two strong runs down the aggressive Mannlichen-Jungfrau course to win with an aggregate time of 1 minute, 47.88 seconds and Sasaki was runner-up in 1:47.92.
The Japanese skier, who started a distant 65th in the opening leg, overcame rutted conditions to finish an amazing seventh. Sasaki then vaulted into runner-up position after producing the fastest second leg.
World Cup slalom leader Ivica Kostelic, leading after the opening leg with Rocca, crossed third in 1:48.59.
Norwegian Kjetil Andre Aamodt was seventh in the slalom and won the combined event, which adds the time from Friday's downhill to Sunday's slalom.
In addition to finishing 11th in the slalom, Miller was runner-up in the combined. The results gave Miller 104 points and allowed him to overtake overall, downhill and super-G champion Stephan Eberharter in the general rankings.