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IF NFL FOLLOWS SUIT, DEFENSE WILL DECIDE IT.

Byline: KEVIN MODESTI

SAN DIEGO - Centuries before there were Super Bowls, before there were Raiders and Buccaneers, before there even were shoe contracts, sports' biggest themes were already established.

In ye olde sports bar and gambling hall, the lads argued about who wins between Size and Speed, between Youth and Experience and - in the greatest rivalry of all - between the Irresistible Force and the Immovable Object.

Prithee, give me the Irresistible Force plus the points.

The oldest rivalry lives on today in San Diego in the showdown between the Oakland offense, which gained more yards than any other in the NFL in the regular season, and the Tampa Bay defense, which allowed the fewest.

It's the first Super Bowl to match the season's No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense, and therefore the ultimate test of which is more important.

You know the cliches: Defense wins championships. Good defense beats good offense. Good pitching beats good hitting.

Tampa Bay fans hope they're true.

Among those fans is a one-time resident of neighboring Sarasota, Fla., named Jim Tracy.

``The part of the cliche that's correct is that in any sport, I don't care if it's baseball, basketball or football, defense will keep you in the game,'' said Tracy, the Dodgers manager, who is rooting for the Buccaneers' defense to carry the day. ``You know if you don't have defense, you aren't going anywhere. You have to know how to win those 3-2 and 2-0 (baseball) games.

``If it's Kevin Brown at his best (pitching) against Barry Bonds at his best, Brown's going to win sometimes and Bonds is going to win sometimes. Bonds is going to get his hits against anybody on a given day. But Brown at his best will negate everybody else in the lineup.''

So, from a baseball man's perspective, the Tampa Bay defense should prevail?

Tracy isn't entirely confident.

``From what I understand about the Super Bowl, the mental part of Rich Gannon is very important,'' Tracy said of the Oakland quarterback. ``It's going to be pretty hard for Tampa Bay to negate a guy's ability to think.''

We said this is the first Super Bowl to put the top-ranked offense up against the top-ranked defense, but that's only as the NFL measures those things, in terms of yards gained and allowed. But four Super Bowls since the 1971 NFL-AFL merger have featured the best offense and defense in terms of points scored and given up.

In those, the team with the great defense won three times - Pittsburgh beating Dallas in 1979 even though the game was a 35-31 slugfest, San Francisco beating Miami in 1985 and the New York Giants beating Buffalo in 1991 - and the one with the great offense won once, San Francisco beating Denver in 1990 by the record margin of 55-10.

Broadening the sample: Thirteen times, the Super Bowl has matched one of the three highest-scoring teams against one of the three hardest-to-score-upon. The good defense prevailed eight times, the good offense five times.

Of course, in some cases there were mitigating circumstances, like the team with the high-ranked defense also having a high-ranked offense or vice versa.

But the ``good defense beats good offense'' cliche holds its own in the United States' other major team sports as well.

In baseball, since 1971, six times has the World Series matched the team scoring the most runs in one league against the team with the lowest earned-run average in the other. They've each won three Series, the most recent example being strong-armed Atlanta's victory over strong-hitting Cleveland in 1995.

In basketball, over the same span, teams with top-three scoring averages have faced teams with bottom-three points-allowed averages seven times in the NBA Finals. The defense has prevailed four times, including the past three, Chicago's victories over Phoenix (1993), Seattle (1996) and Utah (1998).

In hockey, applying the same standards to the Stanley Cup Finals, defense-oriented teams have beaten offense-oriented teams nine times to eight.

``Defense is the essence of all goal-oriented sports, ones with goalposts or nets,'' said Kings coach Andy Murray, who's rooting for the Raiders, being an old Minnesota acquaintance of Gannon. ``The bottom line is that if you don't score, you can never win. But to me, you have to play good defense to create offense. In football, if you're good defensively, you're always going to have good field position. In hockey, if you're good defensively, you're going to create space to work offensively.

``The mindset has to be that you play good defense in order to create opportunities on offense. You don't just play defense to be disruptive or destructive. You play defense to be creative.''

Another cliche: The best offense is a good defense.

It's worth noting that, over the past three decades, teams with good offenses have been slightly more likely to get to the Super Bowl, World Series and Stanley Cup Finals, with good defenses making more championship-round appearances only in the NBA Finals.

And whether any of this will have any bearing on Super Bowl XXXVII is anybody's guess. Football games aren't played on paper.

``Big-time players making big-time plays win big games,'' is Raiders linebacker Bill Romanowski's flesh-and-blood summation.

But history shows that in contests between irresistible forces and immovable objects, the latter is the way to bet.

SUPER BOWL XXXVII

Sunday, 3:25 p.m., Ch. 7

CAPTION(S):

2 photos, 3 boxes

Photo:

(1) OAKLAND RAIDERS HEAD COACH: Bill Callahan

(2) TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS HEAD COACH: Jon Gruden

Box:

(1) OAKLAND RAIDERS

(2) TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

(3) SUPER BOWL ROSTERS
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jan 26, 2003
Words:928
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