Somehow you knew that in a grudge game like this, the gloves eventually would come off. Jets running back Curtis Martin struggled mightily to remove the glove from his right hand and tossed it on the turf at Raymond James Stadium just before the snap late in the fourth quarter Sunday. It was a clear indication that something might be up.
And one the Bucs defense ignored.
Taking a pitch from quarterback Vinny Testaverde, Martin faked a sweep to his right before using his bare right hand to throw a winning, 18-yard touchdown to Wayne Chrebet with 52 seconds remaining to lead the Jets to a 21-17 comeback win over Tampa Bay.
The play enabled the Jets to overcome an 11-point deficit in the final 1:54 to snap Tampa Bay's eight-game home winning streak. More impressively, it enabled the Jets to remain unbeaten by shredding a Bucs defense that failed to protect a fourth-quarter lead for the third time in 30 games under Tony Dungy.
Chrebet and the Jets could not have scripted a better ending against the Bucs and antagonist Keyshawn Johnson. Johnson was held to one catch for 1 yard and it came on a shovel pass in the first half.
Chrebet had been nearly as quiet, but his second catch silenced the Bucs and their mouthy receiver.
"That's between him, Chrebet and the other guy who caught passes," Bucs guard Frank Middleton said. "I don't hang out with Keyshawn. We're teammates, I love him to death. But that was his call. He went at it by talking trash and they didn't. Usually when that happens, the team that shuts up and plays football usually wins."
Chrebet's touchdown reception was set up by Mike Alstott's 12th lost fumble in his past 36 regular-season games. This one was caused by linebacker Marvin Jones and recovered by safety Victor Green with the Jets trailing by a field goal and 1:39 left. The Bucs' final chance at a comeback ended when quarterback Shaun King was sacked at his 11 by defensive end John Abraham and lost a fumble that was recovered by Bryan Cox.
King suffered through one of the worst performances of his career. After playing error-free during a 3-0 start, he collapsed Sunday, throwing two interceptions, losing a fumble and missing several open receivers. "It's embarrassing," Middleton said. "Our defense played great. And anybody who says something is wrong about our defense, that's not right. They don't deserve anything bad said about them. We're back in the situation where we were last year. If we have an offense, we go to the Super Bowl. And again, we don't have an offense to win a big game and that hurts me because I'm tired of being pretty much the butt of the whole team."
Testaverde returned from a one series benching to engineer his third fourth-quarter comeback of the season.
His 6-yard touchdown pass to Martin and subsequent two-point conversion pass to rookie Laveranues Coles pulled the Jets to within 17-14 with 1:54 remaining.
All the Bucs needed to do was hold the ball for three plays, force the Jets to burn all their timeouts and turn it over to their defense. But Alstott's fumble led to the improbable catch by Chrebet.
"I couldn't believe we would be in that situation," Chrebet said. "Curtis isn't the best passer in the world, but he got it to me. I really think this is destiny."
Johnson, who had likened himself to a star while saying Chrebet was a flashlight that burns out, did about as much talking after the game as his play had on the field.
"Pretty much I said, 'Wow, damn, they let somebody get open,' " Johnson said. "I didn't know he caught it until the end. Then it's a touchdown. There's nothing really you can say. They ran the toss fake and threw the ball, he was open and scored the touchdown. So there's really nothing you can say about it except they scored a touchdown and won the game."
It was a triumphant homecoming for Testaverde, making his first regular-season appearance in Tampa since leaving the Bucs in '93 after six miserable seasons.
For a while, it looked as if the game would serve as a metaphor for his career in Tampa.
Testaverde was intercepted for the third time early in the fourth quarter when Jamie Duncan picked off a pass intended for Chrebet - the play that led to his benching for backup Ray Lucas.
Up to that point, Testaverde was mired in a miserable second half, going 4-for-13 for 35 yards and two interceptions.
"Things hadn't been going smoothly for us and we were all getting a little frustrated out there," Jets coach Al Groh said."After we got the ball back so quickly, I thought it was a good time for Vinny not to go out there and let him sit for second. But he's won a lot of games for us and Vinny's our guy."
Groh may not be an offensive genius, but he knows a bad idea when he sees one. After watching Lucas go three-and-out and get sacked, he quickly pushed No. 14 back onto the field.
"I didn't know I was coming out, so I just stayed close by," Testaverde said. "Nothing really bothers me, because I've been through so much that I feel like I can handle anything.
I feel like the fourth quarter belongs to me. We've done it over and over, time and again."
The Bucs offense produced just 10 points Sunday - all in the first half - on Martin Gramatica's 22-yard field goal and Dave Moore's one- handed grab of a 3-yard pass from King.
But Tampa Bay's defense made it 17-6 early in the third quarter when Ronde Barber intercepted Testaverde's pass intended for Dedrick Ward and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown.
During the week leading up the game, the Bucs had never worked on the halfback pass that sealed their fate. The only gadget play they worked on defensing was one in which Martin took the handoff and pitched it to Testaverde.
After Alstott's fumble, Martin ran for 6 yards on first down and the Bucs figured the Jets might be content to settle for a field goal that likely would send the game into overtime.
When Martin took the pitch, cornerback Brian Kelly, who had Chrebet man-to-man, lost coverage on the run fake and safety Damien Robinson was late helping.
"We just got fooled on it," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "We didn't play it like we should have. It was a good call. It seemed like the ball hung up there forever. I mean, it could've been picked. You know, it was a great call. But it could've backfired and they could've walked out of here without trying the field goal."
While Johnson tried to downplay the significance of the loss - with Chrebet catching the winning touchdown, no less - his former teammates knew otherwise.
"Any game he loses, I know it hurts. But I know this probably hurts a little more because Keyshawn is a competitor," said Jets defensive back Chris Hayes, Johnson's former roommate. "I know it's burning him up. He's sick right now. Oh, he's sick. He needs some Pepto Bismol."
Rick Stroud , The St.Petersburg Times 2000