False start, Tampa Bay
Okay, maybe everyone was right. The only thing the Bucs' top-ranked defense really needed Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings was a quarter back. Specifically, the Bucs would like to take back the first quarter in which they allowed the Vikings to score all their points on three touchdown passes by quarterback Randall Cunningham - two to receiver Randy Moss - in a 21-14 loss at the Metrodome.

Playing without Pro Bowl defensive tackle Warren Sapp and defensive end Steve White, the NFL's No. 1 defense watched Minnesota roll up 192 yards of offense - more than it had allowed in any game this season. The stunning collapse - the worst quarter by the Bucs defense in 11 years - wound up spoiling a valiant comeback try by the offense and the third 300-yard passing day of quarterback Trent Dilfer's career. "I'd probably give anything to have that first quarter back because that's where the game was basically won and lost for us," cornerback Donnie Abraham said. "We just let them get out too far ahead. And when you let good teams get out like that, it's too hard to fight back and we came up a little short at the end."

Dilfer threw 26-yard touchdowns to tight end Dave Moore and wide receiver Reidel Anthony and had two chances in the final 5:54 to send the game into overtime. But the first ended when Dilfer, being hit by blitzing linebacker Ed McDaniel, underthrew Warrick Dunn onfourth and 1. Linebacker Corey Miller intercepted at the Minnesota 10-yard line. The Bucs defense settled down in the second half, helped by Abraham's interception in the end zone and John McLaughlin's block of a 37-yard field goal by Gary Anderson. They allowed the Vikings only three first downs in the fourth quarter and gave the Bucs offense the ball back at the Tampa Bay 35 with 1:24 and one timeout left.

Dilfer drove the Bucs to the Minnesota 18. But three penalties - two against guard Jorge Diaz - had taken too much time off the clock. The game ended when Dilfer's pass to rookie Darnell McDonald in the end zone was batted away by safety Robert Griffith. "Maybe there were some good numbers. Maybe people will say this and that. The bottom line is, we scored 14 points," said Dilfer, who completed 25 of 39 passes for 301 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. "We've got to score more than 14 points to win up in Minnesota."

It would've been a stirring comeback for Dilfer and the Bucs, and, for a change, it was the defense that put Tampa Bay in the hole. Credit Moss, who complained all week to offensive coordinator Ray Sherman that the Vikings needed to devise more ways to get him the football. Sherman obliged and Moss put on a show. He caught three passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter as the Vikings found the end zone the first three times they had the ball. "He's a hell of an athlete," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. "He's 6-4 and can run. When he gets going, he's really going. He made a play when he had an opportunity to make a play. I think, in the past couple weeks, he hasn't been doing that. They were just going to throw it up there and let him make the play."

Barber fell down and was beaten on Moss' first touchdown - a 61- yarder from Cunningham in which safety Damien Robinson was late helping out. The Vikings mixed it up by moving Moss to the slot receiver. That formation produced their second touchdown minutes later on his 27- yard run and catch off a crossing route. Minnesota made it 21-0 when Cunningham, who had 233 of his 296 yards passing in the first half, hit tight end Andrew Glover for a 12- yard scoring pass.

At the insistance of Dilfer, coach Tony Dungy used a replay challenge because it appeared Glover's right foot came down out of bounds. Replays seemed to confirm Dilfer's suspicion, but referee Mike Carey ruled the evidence was inconclusive and the touchdown stood. "All I know is it's got to be totally obvious to overturn it, and I guess it wasn't," said Dungy, who was fined $10,000 by the NFL three weeks ago after revealing the league admitted it blew three critical calls in the Bucs' loss to the Giants.

The Bucs had their chances to win Sunday. Dungy left himself open for second-guessing in the first half. Trailing 21-7, the Bucs had the ball at midfield on second and 1. But because tight end Patrick Hape, who doubles as a short-yardage fullback, was out injured, the Bucs were unable to use their jumbo backfield. Dunn was stopped for no gain on runs into the middle of the line on the next two plays. And on fourth and 1, Dungy elected to punt. "We had a three-tight end package set to go that we really didn't get to use," Dungy said. "But we thought we'd punt them back in there and play defense. Then, you know, we didn't hold them. So it doesn't turn out the way you want."

The game was reminiscent of the Bucs' 31-7 loss at Minnesota a year ago when Tampa Bay fell behind 21-0 by halftime. "It's tough in this building, especially when you get behind," Dungy said. "That's one thing we talked about all week, not giving them momentum plays early. We did everything exactly the way we didn't want to do it. We know we didn't play our best today. We're going to be there. But this is not a season you're going to make it to the playoffs in Week 3, Week 4 or Week 5. We've got to keep playing and keep getting better."

The Bucs travel to Green Bay for a Sunday night game next week. The defense will be tested by another Pro Bowl quarterback. But that was not on their minds as they walked out of the Metrodome. "If we could have that first quarter back," defensive end Chidi Ahanotu said. "I think it would've been a boxing match and two heavyweights going at it. But that's their game. They got a jump on us and did their thing."

Rick Stroud , The St.Petersburg Times 1999