HERE'S THE KICKER: BUCS ARE 5-2
Week by week, there's quite a bit building for these Tampa Bay Bucs. There's momentum, confidence, suspense, and even an honest-to-goodness winning streak.
If this continues, the next thing going up might be a new Tampa Stadium. At the point of the football season the Bucs are usually history, Tampa Bay instead is making some. The Bucs' latest example was Sunday's dramatic 20-17 overtime win against Minnesota, secured when kicker Michael Husted played hero for the second straight week, nailing a 51-yard field goal with 8:37 remaining.
Husted's game-winner, the second-longest overtime field goal in NFL history, lifted Tampa Bay to its first 5-2 start since 1979. The Bucs, who maintain a half-game lead in the NFC Central over Green Bay and Chicago (both 4-2), have won four straight, tying the franchise's second-longest streak, and are at least three games over .500 for the first time since the close of their 10-6 season in 1979.
The win, before a crowd of 55,703, undoubtedly will sell some tickets to Tampa Bay's home game next week against 4-2 Atlanta. And it certainly won't hurt the chances of the team's Charter Seat Deposit program, which begins Wednesday and will be previewed Tuesday night in a half-hour locally televised special. New Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer is hoping the CSD program provides the impetus for funding a new stadium.
"I think I said it best when I turned to (Bucs director of player personnel) Jerry Angelo right before (Husted's) kick and said, `This one's for the stadium,' " joked Bucs general manager Rich McKay. "I think that was the appropriate moment."
Whether or not the Bucs laid the cornerstone of a new stadium or helped cement their future with their victory, the win was vital. More than one Buccaneer spoke of a corner turned.
"I think when you talk about turning a corner, you have to get into tough ballgames and test your will," said Bucs middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who led a defense that surrendered just one touchdown and three Fuad Reveiz field goals. "You have to go down the line, and have it come down to an overtime or last-second victory. You have to test the character of your football team, and I think that happened today.
"I think we turned the corner. The confidence is here now. We know we can beat any team in the league. And we're not even playing our best football. That's the thing about it, once that offense gets on track, man, it's going to be exciting around here."
Exciting? What could be more exciting than Tampa Bay losing an 11-point fourth-quarter lead, forcing the Vikings to settle for a game-tying 23-yard field goal with 56 seconds remaining, sweating out a 53-yard Reveiz overtime field-goal try that went wide right, coming up on the right end of a bizarre double-turnover, then winning on Husted's thunderous boot? All just a week after Husted's 53-yarder with 29 seconds remaining in regulation vanquished Cincinnati 19-16.
Pity the poor Vikings (3-3). Minnesota, which has played into overtime in seven of its past 16 regular-season games, has lost two straight in overtime to Tampa Bay. The Bucs won by the same score in the Metrodome in November on Husted's 22-yard field goal. That game started Tampa Bay's late-season four-game winning streak.
"It's definitely a new day in Tampa Bay," said Husted, whose kick trails only Mike Cofer's 52-yard overtime field goal in the Colts' win over the Jets in September. "This was just as sweet as last week's. The fact that we're 5-2 and still on top of our division means a lot because I know a lot of people were probably thinking we were only going to hold onto first for a week.
"I hope those fans who have been on the fence about whether or not they want to come out and watch us play see our record and our effort and give us a chance next week against Atlanta."
Here's what gave Tampa Bay a chance Sunday against the Vikings: forcing four turnovers, including two interceptions by strong safety John Lynch deep in Bucs territory and a 78-yard fumble return for a touchdown by cornerback Martin Mayhew; more solid red-zone defense by the Bucs (just one field goal allowed on Minnesota's two trips); and a strong comeback from quarterback Trent Dilfer.
Benched in two of his past four games (including last week against Cincinnati), with a concussion knocking him out of a third, Dilfer responded with career highs in completions (24) and attempts (37) for 249 yards, no interceptions and no touchdowns. Concentrating more on short passes, Dilfer was sharp all day and made sound decisions.
"I've learned something about this league, you don't earn respect by talking," Dilfer said. "You earn respect by doing. I just decided this week I was going to do it. Just shut my mouth and go out there and play. I saw the field better than I've ever seen it in my life. I was feeling like I was totally in control of what was happening. I really feel like I moved to the next level."
Also moving to the next level is the Bucs' defense. Despite missing three starters for all or most of the game - safeties Thomas Everett and Barney Bussey (who were out all week), and right end Eric Curry (who left the game with a rib bruise) - the Bucs have surrendered just seven touchdowns in six games.
"Everybody just expects somebody to make a big play, even when they're moving the ball," said Mayhew, whose second-quarter return of an Amp Lee fumble was the second-longest in team history and the longest ever at Tampa Stadium. There's none of that feeling of dread like something bad's about to happen. (Turnovers) are starting to happen for us. They say when it rains, it pours, and it's pouring right now."
The Bucs have 14 turnovers in the past three weeks. Three have come from Lynch, who made his first career interception last week against Cincinnati. Against Minnesota, he victimized his former college coach, Dennis Green (Stanford), twice. "We've been playing ugly, if you want to call it that," said Lynch, who never had two interceptions in a game at any level. "And people really didn't believe. But I think everybody is going to believe after this week. We knew this was going to be a defining game in our season. We didn't want to put too much into it, so that if we lost we would have blown it, but I think everyone knew in the back of our mind this was a big, big game."
Don Banks, The St.Petersburg Times 1995