A cold slap in the face
So maybe you still can shove the corks back into the champagne bottles. This is what happens when you start celebrating too early. About the time you raise a glass to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for their best start in years, they go bottoms up. It happened again Sunday when the Bucs confounded the oddsmakers and came from ahead to lose 24-14 to Indianapolis at Tampa Stadium before 56,585 - their largest home crowd of the year.

Tampa Bay dominated time of possession, and Indianapolis still cleaned their clock. All week long, coach Sam Wyche rode his team until he was hoarse about the Colts. But looking back, the Bucs probably were looking ahead. "I felt 4-1 during the week," said Bucs quarterback Vinny Testaverde. "I felt 4-1 at halftime. But you can't be 4-1 and play the way we did."

Failing to capitalize on a horrific first half for Indianapolis, the Bucs allowed Colts quarterback Jeff George to pass for 234 yards and two touchdowns and rally his team to 17 straight points in the second half. The loss dropped Tampa Bay (3-2) into sole possession of second place in the NFC Central Division, one game behind Minnesota. Indianapolis, which was playing its first game since George came off the disabled list, improved to 2-2.

While the Colts proved they are a team of the future, they looked like one straight out of the Bucs' past. Two years ago in Tampa, with a chance to go three games above .500, the Bucs lost in the final seconds to a Dallas Cowboys team that was coming off a 1-15 season. But instead of the Bucs staring down the barrel of Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, the gunslinger glint belonged to George and the Colts. After going 3-of-13 for 57 yards and throwing two interceptions in the first half, George came out of the locker room firing for 177 yards and two touchdowns. "They're a much better football team than reputation brings with them to this stadium," Wyche said. "It's my fault. I couldn't quite sell our team on that one during the week, that this was going to be a good game, a good team, and they were going to be better than anything we watched on film. I'm not sure if we played our best game if we could've beaten them today. They were awfully good. They made good plays in a hostile environment here."

The Bucs played just good enough to beat themselves Sunday. They dominated every phase of the game in the first half, except the scoreboard. Tampa Bay held a 23:30-to-6:30 advantage in time of possession, 16-3 in first downs and 182-68 in total yards - with 42 of those yards coming on one pass play from George to Jesse Hester. Meanwhile, Bucs safety Marty Carter intercepted George twice while his defensive teammates recorded one sack and whacked the Colts' quarterback on nearly every play.

But Tampa Bay could manage only a 14-7 lead on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Testaverde to Stanford Jennings and Reggie Cobb's 1-yard run. Cobb's touchdown capped the Bucs' best drive of the day, an 81-yard march in 16 plays that consumed 10 minutes 43 seconds. However, the seeds of the Colts' comeback were sown by Chris Goode's 46-yard interception return of a Testaverde pass that bounced off the hands of rookie tight end Tyji Armstrong and led to their only touchdown of the first half.

Compounding that was Tampa Bay's inability to capitalize on great field position and three drives that ended near midfield or in Colts territory. "What hurt us was ourselves," said Bucs receiver Mark Carrier. "We made a lot of mistakes. We had a lot of turnovers. We didn't make plays. You play against anybody and do that, you're going to get beat."

Do it against George, and it'll happen in a hurry. For the third consecutive week, the Bucs looked dazed to start the third quarter and yielded another long scoring drive. George led the Colts 71 yards in just five plays, firing a 34-yard strike to Hester in the end zone for the tying touchdown just 2:41 into the second half. A holding penalty negated another touchdown pass by George in the third quarter, and Indianapolis was forced to settle for a go-ahead 45-yard field goal by Dean Biasucci.

Fittingly, George's final touchdown pass came after newly acquired running back James Brooks fumbled at the Tampa Bay 39. "We were in his face, and we were putting him down," Bucs defensive lineman Santana Dotson said of George. "You've got to credit George. He stood in there and waited until the last minute to get rid of the ball. He had pinpoint accuracy, and his arm is so strong, he really doesn't have to step into his passes. He played well. You've got to give the Indianapolis Colts credit."

Trailing 24-14, the Bucs still had time for a comeback after Testaverde drove them to within field-goal range with 5:04 to play. But Wyche chose to fake the 44-yard attempt by Ken Willis on fourth and 10, and tight end Ron Hall was smothered by Chip Banks after just a 2-yard gain. "We had to score twice, and we decided to take our shot there," Wyche said. "They actually blew coverage. We had another guy wide open that was not part of the play. The design of the play was not too bad on the fake field goal, but since it didn't work, it turned out to be a bad call."

Ironically, the game ended when Testaverde was tackled inches short of the goal line on fourth down for what might have been the tying touchdown attempt. "I guess if it works and we go in and score, it takes the pressure off us to go down and score a touchdown on the second possession," Testaverde said of the fake. "All we have to do is kick a field goal and we look great for doing it. It didn't work and maybe cost us the game. Maybe it didn't. I guess we'll never know."

Just like Bucs fans will never know if Tampa Bay was looking ahead to the off week or starting to believe its press clippings. "We got a little bit of attention with the 3-1 start, and it felt really good that people were starting to talk about us. We enjoyed the limelight," Testaverde said. "I don't think anybody let it get to their head. Maybe it's a blessing in disguise. We had that taste of what it's like to get the attention, and now we learned we've got to focus the whole week to prepare to beat a team."

Wyche warned against this sort of thing. He threw a tirade after Thursday's practice. But sometimes, it doesn't profit to be a prophet. "We're trying, but sometimes you hit a stale week," Wyche said. "And unfortunately, you hit about two periods where you take a dip a season, where you hit a valley and you don't play very well. A lot of teams are lucky to win when they're in that valley, but we weren't that fortunate today. Coaches have an inkling during the course of the week on how you're going to do, and I just didn't feel good about this one. I tried to pull them out, played the trump card as hard as I could on Thursday to bring them out of things, and just didn't do a very good job. I couldn't find the right message this week."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1992