SAN DIEGO (AP) -- The best players on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in their prime, and the offense should get better as Jon Gruden tinkers.
So why shouldn't a team with the NFL's top defense repeat as Super Bowl champion?
Because history says they won't.
"This is a great defensive team," Gruden said Monday after a night of no sleep following Tampa Bay's first Super Bowl win ever, a 48-21 rout of Oakland in which three of its six touchdowns came on interception returns.
"We think the offense can keep getting better."
Tampa Bay was at its best in the playoffs, outscoring San Francisco, Philadelphia and Oakland by a combined 106-37, allowing only four touchdowns in those three games.
One was on a blocked punt on Sunday, another came after a 70-yard kickoff return in the NFC championship game against the Eagles. The other two were in the Super Bowl when the defense loosened up with a 34-3 lead.
But this is the free agent-salary cap era, and nothing is guaranteed. Quarterback Brad Johnson has been injury-prone during his career and when he missed games this season, the Bucs struggled -- the low point a 17-7 loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 23.
Three years ago, for example, St. Louis won what looked to be the first of many Super Bowls. The Rams haven't won since, making it back last season but getting upset by New England.
This year, with Kurt Warner ineffective and injured, the Rams finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs. That's one of the unknowns -- every year, teams lose key players to injury, but who they lose is most important.
The Bucs were lucky in that aspect this season.
The one significant player they lost was defensive tackle Anthony McFarland. The Bucs were able to overcome that because the rest of their defensive line is so solid.
One advantage the Bucs have that other Super Bowl champions didn't is salary cap room. Nonetheless, it didn't prevent one handicapper from making them just third in the early line for next year -- behind Philadelphia and St. Louis.
"We've got to take care of a bunch of our players and then we'd like to go out and get some other guys," Gruden said Monday. "Hey, you good guys out there! Are you listening?"
One of those listening was right next to Gruden -- free safety Dexter Jackson, whose two first-half interceptions helped Tampa Bay to a 20-3 halftime lead. Jackson is an unrestricted free agent and he said neither he nor his agents had discussed a new contract with Tampa Bay.
But he acted as if he wanted to remain -- unlike Larry Brown, another relatively obscure defensive back who was Super Bowl MVP with Dallas in 1996. Brown bolted for big money in Oakland, where he never approached his two-interception Super Bowl performance.
"We have a lot of superstars on defense -- Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Warren Sapp," Jackson said. "But it's more than those guys. Everyone looks at us as role players but we do a lot more than you think."
What they did Sunday was almost perfect.
Brooks, the league's defensive player of the year, had a 44-yard interception return with 1:18 left, his fifth defensive touchdown of the season.
But the Bucs also got two TD returns, both 44 yards, from little-known nickel back Dwight Smith. Last Tuesday on media day, Smith was on the field reveling in the opportunity to cavort with someone he considered a real celebrity, former Dallas receiver Michael Irvin.
To get back to the Super Bowl, the nucleus of stars will be invaluable.
But so will the Dwight Smiths and Dexter Jacksons.