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Classic duel!

Jan 21, 2003 7:09 AM

And then there were two.

Following a pair of compelling Conference Championship games this past weekend, the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will meet this Sunday in San Diego to conclude the 2002-03 season. The winner will take home the Vince Lombardi Trophy, emblematic of winning Super Bowl XXXVII and emerge as champion from one of the most competitive and balanced seasons in recent memory.

Despite the references to ”˜parity’ and the numerous upsets that occurred along the way, the top seeded team in the AFC (Oakland) faces the second seed from the NFC. Each won twice to advance to Sunday’s finale.

The opening line had Oakland favored by 3 ½ points with the Over/Under at 43. Early in the week, Oakland had been bet up to a 4 and the total rose to 43 ½. The line is expected to creep up another half-point since more Oakland money is anticipated.

The Super Bowl is the most wagered single event each year. The handle in the legal sports books of Nevada may well set a record this year, topping $80 million. This may be in part due to the game taking place in nearby San Diego, with many of those attending stopping off in Las Vegas. Another reason we may see a record handle is having Oakland involved. The Raiders are either loved or hated but people know them.

Tampa Bay is making its first Super Bowl appearance after failing two previous times in the NFC title game. Oakland is in the fifth Super Bowl, but first in 19 years. And back in 1984 the Raiders were based in Los Angeles, so this is the first time since Super Bowl XV that the Silver and Black will be representing Oakland.

So much is known about both teams and attention paid to nearly every angle, that most of the wagering possibilities may involve the many proposition bets posted at the sports books in town.

Many of the ”˜props’ are innovative, entertaining and designed to provide action throughout the game. It is possible to have prop action on every single play.

Some are fairly straightforward and involve just two options. An example would be whether or not there will be a score in the final two minutes of the first half. Your choices are either Yes or No. Usually the "Yes" will be favored. A similar type prop could be whether Oakland QB Rich Gannon will have more or less than 22 ½ pass completions. Most of these two option props have low odds so that you might have to lay -140 or -150 on the ”˜favored’ part of the prop. Bettors could receive +120 or +110 on the ”˜underdog’ part.

The most popular of the large payoff props would include the player to score the first touchdown. Odds can range from 6-1 to as high as 50-1 or more. If you believe a Tampa Bay player will score the first TD, you might want to consider a play on Mike Alstott. For Oakland you might look at one of three outstanding wide receivers. Jerry Rice and Jerry Porter are more likely to score than Tim Brown based upon Brown’s failure to snag a TD reception since late in September. Oakland’s counterpart to Alstott would be Zack Crockett.

One might consider a similar prop that involves which team scores first. There are other team props involving the first rushing TD, first passing TD, first TD of any kind or first FG.

In looking at the props, keep in mind that most of the offensive oriented props will tend to favor Oakland. The defensive, or ”˜negative’ props will tend to side with Tampa Bay. This is because Oakland ranks first in the NFL on offense, while the Bucs led the league in defense.

This makes Super Bowl XXXVII especially compelling and intriguing. The key to who wins may be found in the matchup of the Tampa Bay offense against the Oakland defense. Oakland ranked No. 11 in yards allowed and sixth in points yielded. The Bucs ranked No. 24 in total offense and No. 18 in points scored.

The media will also focus on the Jon Gruden factor. Gruden was Oakland’s coach for four seasons, taking over a 4-12 team. The Raiders improved to 8-8 in each of his first two seasons before making the playoffs the last two. There was some bitterness when Gruden left following the 2001 campaign to take over at Tampa Bay. The Bucs paid dearly in terms of monetary and draft considerations, but Gruden has taken a perennial doormat further than any coach in franchise history.

Bill Callahan took over for Gruden in Oakland and took the Raiders further than his predecessor. Gruden would seem to have the edge in his knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the players he used to coach and play schemes. Callahan may also benefit from his knowledge of Gruden’s coaching philosophy.

Tampa Bay was remarkably consistent throughout the season, going 3-1 straight up in each of the regular season’s four quarters. Oakland had its 0-4 slump following a 4-0 start, but is 9-10 in the last 10 games. The Raiders defense against the run was outstanding over the final half of the regular season, allowing an average of just 75 yards per game. But in playoff wins over the Jets and Titans, Oakland allowed 120 and 138 yards -- nearly five per carry.

Interestingly, Tampa Bay had poor rushing stats in one-sided playoff wins over the 49ers and Eagles. But the passing efficiency of Tampa QB Brad Johnson was instrumental in both wins. Johnson had a solid 2002 regular season, leading the NFC in passing efficiency. Johnson tossed 18 TD passes against just 2 interceptions, but his stellar play went largely unnoticed because of the media focus on the Tampa defense.

Oakland QB Rich Gannon was deservedly the league MVP and put up outstanding numbers. But Johnson, despite his spotty history before this season, had every bit as good of a season. One wonders if the coaching of Jon Gruden can be pointed to as the key in making both Gannon and Johnson outstanding quarterbacks. It could be the edge Tampa Bay needs in matching up against the Oakland defense.

The Raiders pass defense has been a concern for much of the season and was exposed again last week against Tennessee. Oakland’s lack of discipline is also a concern with all the penalties called in last week’s win. Tampa’s pass defense allowed a mere 156 yards per game, easily the best stats this year. They will be severely tested by Gannon and his outstanding trio of wide receivers. On the other hand, the Oakland offense will be facing the best defense all season.

Most Super Bowls have been one-sided, rarely living up to the immense pre-game hype. Since the NFL expanded its playoff format to 12 teams in 1990, only four Super Bowls have been decided by seven points or less. Two occurred in the past three seasons with St Louis on the winning and losing end. Seven of the last dozen Super Bowls have been decided by double digits with five decided by more than two touchdowns.

Only two of the last 12 Super Bowls have ending in pointspread pushes. Favorites own a 6-4 ATS edge in the remaining 10. The team that scored more points during the regular season has also gone 6-4 ATS. Both factors would point to Oakland, but teams allowing fewer regular season points are 7-3 ATS. The team having the greater differential in points scored vs. points allowed is also 7-3 ATS. Both factors point to Tampa Bay.

Oakland does have some key players with Super Bowl experience. Jerry Rice on offense and Bill Romanowski on defense are proven leaders. Tampa Bay is greener, but may have gained valuable experience following the horrible start last week in Philadelphia. The NFC Title game may have placed more pressure on the Bucs, who dealt with a poor road playoff record, awful results in cold temperatures and lackluster play against the Eagles in recent seasons. The pressure of Super Bowl XXXVII may actually be more on Oakland.

Offense wins games but defense wins championships. For the first half of the season the Tampa offense struggled as coach Gruden’s new system was being implemented. Gruden’s familiarity with his ex players and coaches gives him an advantage in designing a game plan. Both teams are playing with great confidence entering Super Bowl XXXVII, but we’ve seen the Tampa Bay defense make the big plays all season.

The play of Ronde Barber the past two weeks is nothing new. The veteran defense, anchored by Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Derek Brooks, will pose a threat to the Oakland offense and ultimately create the key turnover that decides what forecasts as a defensive struggle and competitive game. Both teams have rather average special teams, each has solid placekickers so the game of field position will be key. That also plays to the stronger defense.

The pick is Tampa Bay, 20-19. Oakland will settle for four field goals. The plays are TAMPA BAY / UNDER with a part of the play on the +160 money line.

Last week: 1-1

Playoffs: 6-4.