Not ready for prime time
Last week, it was the Flashlight. Sunday, it was Neon. After an undefeated start, the Bucs are being outshined late in games and their hopes for a super season have begun to dim. "Neon" Deion Sanders' 57-yard punt return set up a winning, 20- yard field goal by former Buc Michael Husted with 10:51 remaining in overtime to give the Washington Redskins a 20-17 victory.

It was the second gut-wrenching loss for the Bucs. Last week, they blew an 11-point lead in the final two minutes when Wayne Chrebet, who had been called a "flashlight" by Keyshawn Johnson, caught the winning touchdown with 52 seconds remaining. Sunday at Fed Ex Field, the Bucs rallied from a 10-point deficit to send the game into overtime - only to be beaten by Sanders. "I know how a woman in labor feels, waiting nine months for that baby to come," Sanders said of his game-altering return. "And boy, did that baby come. She was a big one, wasn't she?".

Prime Time delivered. His electrifying return spoiled a dramatic comeback that was part luck and part pluck.The Bucs erased a 10-point lead in the final two minutes. The victory was payback for the Redskins' 14-13 loss to the Bucs in the NFC divisional playoff game in Tampa in January. The Bucs (3-2) are in no shape to look to the post-season.

They were outplayed by the Redskins (3-2) and running back Stephen Davis, who rushed for 141 yards on 28 carries, including a 50-yard touchdown run. Now facing a Monday night football game Oct. 9 against the unbeaten Vikings at the Metrodome, the Bucs face a tough opponent and a possible .500 record. After the game, linebacker Derrick Brooks delivered a rare emotional address to his teammates in the locker room, encouraging them to stay positive. "We're 3-2. And if you're not hungry for a win so bad now, you don't need to be part of this ballclub," Brooks said. "That's as clear-cut as I can get. If you aren't hungry for a win right now, you don't need to be in our locker room."

Shaun King, who missed open receivers most of the night and threw an interception, directed a remarkable rally. Trailing by 10 with 3:36 left, King drove the Bucs from their 31 to Washington's 46 where two incomplete passes set up third and 10. After being stripped of the football by defensive end Bruce Smith, King scooped up the loose ball, rolled to his left and threw a 46- yard touchdown to Reidel Anthony. The play left the Bucs trailing by a field goal at the two-minute warning.

Tampa Bay tried an onside kick that was recovered easily by Washington. The Redskins drove to the Bucs 17, setting up a Husted field-goal attempt. Warren Sapp, who sat out the first quarter because he was late to a meeting Saturday, blocked it, setting up King's final drive in regulation. . The Bucs took over at their 25 with no timeouts and 43 seconds remaining. King sandwiched a 15-yard scramble with completions of 12 yards to Warrick Dunn and 19 yards to Johnson, spiking the ball to kill the clock. Washington jumped offsides on the spike, setting up a game-tying 42-yard field goal by Martin Gramatica on the final play of regulation. "We fought hard and felt good when we gave ourselves a shot to win there at the end," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "But the whole time you had the feeling we were being outplayed."

Tampa Bay lost the overtime coin toss, but made the Redskins go three-and-out. Jacquez Green, who replaced injured Karl Williams, let a short punt from Tommy Barnhardt skip past him before chasing it down inside the 10-yard line and returning it to the 14. "You've got to catch that punt in that situation," Dungy said. "It's a tough ball and I'm not out there. I don't know what happened. But that was a big field position play."

The Bucs were unable to move it from there, giving Sanders one more chance to burn them. "In fairness, they probably should've won this game because I think they beat us in all three phases," Lynch said.

The Bucs entered the game ranked 28th in punt coverage. But they had bottled up Sanders before the finale, holding him to 29 yards on six returns. Sanders made center Morris Unatoa and linebacker Don Davis miss before bouncing outside. Aaron Stecker made the touchdown-saving tackle at the 8. Defensive end John McLaughlin and safety Dexter Jackson said they were blocked in the back on the return, but no penalty flags were thrown.

"They say he can make plays happen. I didn't really see him make any plays happen," McLaughlin said. "I thought we just got cheap- shotted on that last play a little bit. They were desperate for a return. It's the end of the game. You do things like that. I thought they would throw a flag on something like that. I never saw the guy, out of the corner of my eye or anything."

It was vindication for Sanders, who had been labeled Past-His- Primetime for poor performances against Detroit and Dallas. "All you doubters, I've got room on the bandwagon," said Sanders. "I'm not taking applications, because I know all the mess you've been saying and writing as if I've been trying to get tackled on every punt return. But it's all right. I'm a forgiving man."

So is Brooks, who rarely addresses his team after games but wanted to offer encouragement. "I just walked in the door and looked around and I saw my team down," Brooks said. "It hurts, don't get me wrong. It hurts me more than it hurts anybody. But I can't lose my team. If it takes me saying a few words to keep them encouraged, so be it."

Inexplicably, the Bucs fared better in the first quarter with Sapp out of the game. Washington had 15 total yards and was held to minus- 2 passing as quarterback Brad Johnson was sacked twice. The Bucs only touchdown, a 2-yard run by Mike Alstott, was set up when Damien Robinson recovered Johnson's fumble that was caused by Anthony McFarland. Davis, the first player to rush for 100 or more yards against the Bucs since Week 15 of last season, got the Redskins even with his 50- yard run. "I know the guys in this room. I think we're a bunch of fighters," Lynch said. "We've been in this situation before and we know how to get ourselves out."

Rick Stroud , The St.Petersburg Times 2000