Prayers answered
The nice guy may still finish last. But Tony Dungy is a man of faith, and for the first time this season the Buccaneers went out and practiced everything he had preached on Sunday. They protected the football and a lead. They caused turnovers. And Dungy continued to push every button but the one marked "panic" while likely picking up a few more disciples.

Ending five weeks of frustration and soul-searching, Dungy was rewarded with his first victory as an NFL head coach in an improbable manner, beating his former Minnesota Vikings team, which shared the best record in the league. Beleaguered quarterback Trent Dilfer threw a career-high three touchdown passes - two to veteran backup receiver Robb Thomas - as the Bucs scored all their points in the second half of the 24-13 upset.

"We were starting to wonder if we ever knew what this would feel like to come in after a win," Dungy said. "It feels a lot different. It feels pretty good. After four or five tries, you're wondering if they're ever going to come."

After the final seconds ticked down, Dungy was given a ceremonial dousing from the Gatorade vat and fought his way through camera operators to midfield, where he was mobbed by players from both teams. For once, the Bucs locker room was a warm, reassuring place, not a freezer full of cold stares and long faces.

Defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who sealed the game with 2:05 remaining by sacking Warren Moon and causing a fumble that was recovered by Chidi Ahanotu, presented Dungy with the game ball. "I had to give him a game ball," Sapp said. "I said to myself when I came out to practice this week, it didn't look like he'd been sleeping too well. He'd been growing the beard and everything. I said, `Let's give this game ball to him and keep it going from here.' "

The Vikings entered the game tied for the best record in the NFL at 5-1, atop the NFC Central. Their loss was to the lowly New York Giants. And with Dungy, the Vikings' former defensive coordinator, coaching Tampa Bay, they didn't figure to take the Bucs lightly, even though they were mired in a five-game losing streak.

But despite allowing 398 total yards Sunday, Dungy developed a perfect defensive scheme against the 39-year-old Moon. Mixing blitzes on sure passing downs, the Bucs sacked Moon three times, intercepted him once and caused his fourth-quarter fumble. The Bucs did it by blitzing reserve cornerback Tyrone Leggette and seldom-used linebacker Demetrius DuBose. "That's something we really hadn't expected so much, and they hadn't shown a lot of that," Moon said. "In their recent games, they've been pretty vanilla. I guess they figured they couldn't just sit back and zone. They had to try to get some pressure and played pretty good man coverage."

Said Bucs linebacker Hardy Nickerson: "He doesn't like going to the ground. He doesn't like getting his uniform dirty."

But Dungy and his defense would have to share the story line Sunday with vagabond journeyman receiver Robb Thomas. Picked up on waivers from Seattle, Thomas had not caught a pass this season and was active in only the previous two games. But he was needed to play after Alvin Harper proved ineffective in the first half because of a cut on his right hand in practice last week. Thomas caught a 31-yard TD pass from Dilfer in the third quarter to tie the score at 7.

He then had to go to the locker room to receive intravenous fluids but returned to catch an 11-yard touchdown with 9:19 remaining. "It was kind of weird," Thomas said. "I ran out of the locker room, ran onto the field - my head wasn't even back in the game yet - and ran my pattern and caught a touchdown. It was almost too easy."

Sandwiched between Thomas' heroics was Dilfer's 12-yard, go-ahead TD pass to rookie fullback Mike Alstott, who broke two tackles and carried linebacker Jeff Brady about 6 yards for the score. Meanwhile, Dilfer enjoyed perhaps his most solid game as a pro. After a slow start, he completed 22 of 35 passes for 218 yards and a career-best three TDs. Most important, he threw no interceptions and was sacked only once by a defense that dumped Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre seven times two weeks ago.

But even Dilfer's performance didn't make the Bucs feel like the game was in the bag, especially considering Tampa Bay's fourth-quarter collapses against Denver and Seattle. But this time the Bucs buckled down. After allowing 320 total yards in first three quarters, they yielded just 74 in the fourth. "I was just going down the line, saying: `Remember, play to win! Play to win! Play to win! Stay aggressive! Take chances!' " linebacker Derrick Brooks said. " `Don't change your style of play because it's the last two minutes. And don't panic.' "

For once, the Bucs took on the stoic composure of their head coach, who had wondered where and when his first victory would come. "I think it's big for Tony because I think self-doubt has to creep in," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. "As much as you say it doesn't, it has to creep in. You have to start asking yourself, are we preparing the right way? Because he had not been in the head-coaching position. But we kept saying to him, `This is not all your fault. We've got a bunch of injuries. Should've won a game here or there. Let's not panic.' So it's nice to get that behind us."

Sapp smiled with a wad of smokeless tobacco behind his lip and continued his post-game sermonizing. "He said before the game he sensed something a little different about us," Sapp said. "He didn't know what it was. He couldn't put his finger on it. But we went out there and got a win. And there's no better feeling in the world."

He's preaching to the choir.

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1996