Odds favor Philadelphia, Oakland rematch in Super Bowl

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 14, 2003

When the Philadelphia Eagles last went to the Super Bowl 22 years ago, they ran into the Oakland Raiders.

The odds say that could happen again.

The Eagles and Raiders earned home-field advantage throughout this season's playoffs and that should help them in Sunday's conference championship games.

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In the NFC, Philadelphia is an early three-point favorite over Tampa Bay, which has lost four straight games to the Eagles. In the AFC, Oakland is favored by 7 1/2 points over Tennessee, a team it beat by 27 in September.

Those matchups seem relatively lopsided -- the antithesis of the regular season, when no one could correctly predict anything from week to week.

They also defy the trend of the previous few seasons, when teams like the Patriots, Giants or Ravens (and even the Titans and Rams in 1999) came out of the woodwork to make it to the Super Bowl. This time, all four semifinalists were considered contenders before the season, although Pittsburgh and St. Louis probably were the consensus conference favorites.

Each title game is a rematch of a regular-season contest. The Raiders routed the Titans 52-25 on Sept. 29 in Oakland, and the Eagles beat the Bucs 20-10 on Oct. 20 in Philadelphia.

Each also pits teams with identical records: the Eagles and Bucs are both 13-4, the Raiders and Titans both 12-5, after home teams swept the weekend's games.

Veterans Stadium, which will host its last NFL game Sunday, has been a house of horrors for Tampa Bay.

The Bucs were knocked out of the playoffs there the last two seasons, and they haven't scored an offensive touchdown there in their past three trips (Derrick Brooks' fumble return accounted for the only TD in October's game).

Tampa Bay's players SAY that doesn't bother them, a stance that has been drummed into them by coach Jon Gruden for the past month.

What they really think is another matter.

''We're a different team than we were last year. We're a different team than we were how many weeks ago that we played them,'' cornerback Ronde Barber said after the Bucs routed San Francisco 31-6 Sunday.

''We were in this position three years ago when we had a chance to go on the road to play for an NFC championship and go to the Super Bowl. I can't imagine us being denied again.''

That game in 2000 was indeed a classic -- an 11-6 loss in St. Louis in which the Bucs' defense almost totally shut down an offense that had dominated the NFL.

But it also was played indoors on decent artificial turf. The field at the Vet almost universally is detested by visiting players; Atlanta coach Dan Reeves and quarterback Michael Vick made a point of blaming it for some of their offensive troubles in Saturday night's 20-6 loss to the Eagles.

Oakland proved its legitimacy with a 30-10 win over the New York Jets in a game that was 10-10 at halftime.

More important, the Raiders' defense was the first to make Chad Pennington look like what he is -- a first-year starter at quarterback. Oakland's two interceptions were as many as Pennington had thrown in his previous 10 games.

''I don't know who made Chad Pennington into Joe Namath. He's not,'' Raiders linebacker Eric Barton said. ''Yeah, he got rattled. He got a lot of hats put on him.''

This week will be a different story.

Tennessee's Steve McNair is far more experienced than Pennington. McNair's reputation as a scrambler has overshadowed his ability as one of the NFL's top clutch QBs.

He was just that in the 34-31 overtime win over the Steelers on Saturday. Other examples: Against the Giants in December, he almost single-handedly overcame a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit; in the 2000 Super Bowl, he drove the Titans to within a yard of taking the Rams into overtime.

Like the Bucs with the Eagles, the Titans have to prove they can stay with the Raiders.

But that big loss to Oakland this season was the third game of a four-game slide that left the Titans at 1-4. Since then, they've won 11 of 12.

''At that point, everybody agreed we'd love to go back and see them again,'' Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. ''That was not indicative of the way we really are.''

There's bound to be a lot of that sort of talk this week:

-- From the Eagles and Raiders, about how hard it is to beat a team twice in a season.

-- From the Bucs and Titans, about how much better they are now than the first time they played.

But the way favorites have been winning and the way home-field advantage really has been an advantage, it looks like it could be the Eagles and Raiders playing for the NFL title in two weeks.

Just like 22 years ago, when Tom Flores, Jim Plunkett, Rod Martin and Oakland surprised Dick Vermeil, Ron Jaworski, Wilbert Montgomery and Philadelphia 27-10.

It would be a fitting reprise.