The Super Bowl-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers of 2002 boasted one of the greatest defenses in NFL history, one that allowed only 12.3 points per game, ranked first in yards allowed by a whopping 15% margin over the second place team and held opposing quarterbacks to a combined passer rating of 48.4. Fittingly, that defense shined brightest when it was put under the ultimate spotlight.
The '02 Buccaneers won a franchise-record 12 regular-season games, took the very first NFC South Division title and beat San Francisco and Philadelphia en route to Super Bowl XXXVII. That led to a meeting with the Oakland Raiders in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium to decide who would lift the Lombardi Trophy. Oakland had league MVP Rich Gannon under center and the NFL's top-ranked offense, and Super Bowl XXXVII marked the first time in 31 years that the highest scoring team faced the best scoring defense in the championship game.
Defense carried the day. Led by Simeon Rice, the Buccaneers' defense sacked Gannon five times, broke up 11 of his passes and pretty much treated him like they had every other passer that season. To wit, Gannon's final passer rating in the Super Bowl: 48.9.
Tampa Bay's secondary had a field day with Gannon under so much pressure. It also helped that Head Coach Jon Gruden, who just the year before had been Oakland's head coach, knew the Raiders' offense inside and out and famously ran the scout team offense in Thursday's practice. Safety Dexter Jackson got an early blowout started with a pair of interceptions based on accurate reads of Gannon tendencies, and those picks would lead to his eventual choice as Super Bowl MVP. Dwight Smith made a strong case for that award with a pair of pick-sixes, one midway through the third quarter that pushed the Bucs' lead to its largest point, 34-3.
The Raiders did manage to rally a bit in the fourth quarter, thanks in part to a touchdown scored on a blocked punt. Though Tampa Bay's lead never fellow below 13 points, the game was still theoretically in doubt when Gannon got the ball back with just under three minutes to play. That's when Warren Sapp put the Raiders on the brink with a pair of big plays, setting up NFL Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Brooks to put "the dagger" in.
First, Sapp shut down the Raiders' very mobile quarterback when Gannon tried to scramble on first down from the Oakland 37, holding him to a one-yard game. On the next play, Sapp did even better, dropping Gannon for a nine-yard sack and forcing a fumble that Oakland's Mo Collins recovered. That put Oakland in a third-and-18 hole and forced Gannon to try to push the ball aggressive down the field.
Brooks started that fateful play right up against the line of scrimmage, looking like he might try to blitz Gannon through the A gap. Instead, the rangy linebacker dropped back immediately upon the snap, quickly getting 15 yards downfield. Gannon locked in on Marcus Knight crossing across the field from the Raiders' right to their left. What Gannon did not see was Brooks coming in the opposite direction, timing his jump perfectly to dash in front of Knight and pick off the pass on a dead run. Nobody touched Brooks as he sprinted to the Buccaneers' sideline and ran 44 yards past his celebrating teammates to the Raiders' end zone.
Even those who had been a bit nervous moments early knew the Buccaneers had just sealed their first Super Bowl win. That included radio announcer Gene Deckerhoff, then and now "The Voice of the Buccaneers," who serenaded the racing Brooks with one of his most famous calls: "There it is! The dagger's in! We're going to win the Super Bowl!"
If it was fitting that Tampa Bay's defense set Super Bowl records for interceptions and defensive touchdowns to lead the franchise to its first title, it was even more fitting that Brooks got to put that final dagger in place. He had spent the regular season invading opposing end zones, scoring four times to boost his Defensive Player of the Year candidacy. The 2002 season was perhaps the peak of Brooks' Hall of Fame career, and his final big play of that amazing year was the one that removed all doubt as to who was the NFL's best that season.
Brooks couldn't hold back the tears as he came back to the Bucs' sideline, the football still clutched tightly in his arm and destined to be a souvenir for life. Later, he explained the emotions of the moment.
"We just kept telling each other to pound the rock," he said. "This defense kept bringing it and bringing it. I was able to read the quarterback and pick that pass off. I'm just glad it came in the Super Bowl, and a Super bowl we deserved to win."