SAN DIEGO -- In a league increasingly devoted to wide-open offense, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will make a last stand for defense tonight.
Derail the Oakland Raiders' magnificent passing offense and the Bucs are NFL champions. Lose and the old bromide that defense wins championships is outdated, if not out the window.
The Super Bowl offers a grand stage and irrefutable proof. It's the Raiders' No. 1 offense against the Bucs' No. 1 defense, and the winner gets to raise the Lombardi Trophy at Qualcomm Stadium.
This is the first time in 37 Super Bowls that the NFL's No. 1 offense will meet the No. 1 defense. There is some history with top-ranked defenses, however.
The Bucs are the eighth No. 1 defense to reach the title game. Interestingly, six of the previous seven top defenses won it, including Dallas and Green Bay in the 1990s and Chicago in 1985.
Only the 1982 Miami Dolphins failed to measure up.
What all that means is uncertain in a season when touchdowns, points and passes reached record highs. But even the method of advancing the ball on offense changed this season. With the absence of the league's top running backs from the postseason, a new formula for winning has emerged.
"Football is changing from free agency to the style of defense to the style of offense," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "I mean the game has changed. Guys are getting better defending the run. They are getting faster and more physical.
"There are more people around the line of scrimmage on early downs. To run the football is a very difficult thing to do. There are a lot of ways to skin a cat. ... Whatever aspect of your team you feel strong enough about is what you feature."
The Bucs' best players are on defense and have been for years. Under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, they are a veteran unit that specializes in speed, disguising coverages and converging at the ball.
Tonight, Kiffin matches wits with Raiders offensive coordinator Marc Trestman.
"This is as smart a group as we've played," Trestman said. "It's really evident. Schematically, they're near perfect in how they play their coverages. They're really good at reading a quarterback's eyes. They understand play concepts and formations. They're really intuitive."
Oakland averaged 389.8 total yards in offense this season. It topped 400 yards seven times, with a high of 520 against Arizona.
Twice the Raiders were held under 300 total yards, by San Francisco and Miami, and lost both times. Watching the Raiders rip Tennessee, 41-24, in the AFC championship game last week, Kiffin said he was reminded of an Arena League game.
"I'm not saying it in disrespect," he said. "I've never seen a team come out like that."
Passing with abandon, the Raiders ran the ball only once through three quarters against Tennessee.
Quarterback Rich Gannon threw 618 times this season, and running back Charlie Garner caught 91 passes. With two possession receivers in Jerry Rice and Tim Brown and a deep threat in Jerry Porter, Oakland's first-year coach Bill Callahan went from a two-back offense to a three-wide receiver set.
The Bucs saw two completely different defenses have success against the Raiders this season. In Week 6, the St. Louis Rams played six defensive backs most of the game in an umbrella zone that dealt the Raiders their first loss, 28-18. Gannon completed 30 of 45 passes for 332 yards, but also had two interceptions.
Then in Week 15, Miami pressed the Raiders' receivers and played mostly man-to-man coverage for a 23-17 win.
Safety John Lynch said the best way to slow Oakland's offense is pressing the receivers.
"You get in the receivers' faces and disrupt them any way you can and get pressure on them," he said. "You vary your looks by showing them one thing and give them another. That's a tough thing to do with a guy like Rich because he has played for so long and is so knowledgeable."
In last year's Super Bowl, the New England Patriots stumped the Rams' No. 1 offense, and two years ago, the Ravens' defense throttled the New York Giants.
Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber was at the Ravens' game, and came away with a new appreciation for defense.
"I was absolutely amazed at how fast that [Ravens'] defense played," Barber said. "In that way, we are similar to the Ravens. One common factor in great defense is the ability to play mistake-free and fast. The Ravens, us and the Chicago Bears, all these defenses played aggressive, hard and fast."
While the Bucs acknowledge they need to win tonight to be lumped in with the NFL's best defenses ever, the Raiders are disbelieving.
"They've got to win if they want to be considered," said Oakland defensive tackle Sam Adams, who played on the Ravens' Super Bowl defense. "They're second tier, compared to us."
Still, the Bucs' raw speed is eye-catching to Callahan.
"The athleticism is the thing that sticks out," he said. "You watch those guys run to the ball and watch them instinctively react to the runs and passes. The linebackers are like raptors. They're all over the place. Their quickness is really defining."
No. 1 vs. No. 1
This is the first time the No. 1-ranked offense has faced the No. 1-ranked defense in a Super Bowl. The Raiders are 5-1 against top 10 defenses this season; the Bucs are 3-2 against top 10 offenses. Raiders vs. top 10 defenses
Opponent Def. rank Result
Steelers 7 W, 30-17
Titans 10 W, 52-25
Broncos 6 W, 34-10
Dolphins 3 L, 23-17
Broncos 6 W, 28-16
Titans* 10 W, 41-24
Bucs vs. top 10 offenses
Opponent Off. rank Result
Eagles 10 L, 20-10
Vikings 2 W, 38-24
Steelers 5 L, 17-7
49ers* 8 W, 31-6
Eagles* 10 W, 27-10