Back in a big way
It was during a team meeting Saturday night at the Wyndham Harbor Island that Bucs coach Tony Dungy told his club that while the Minnesota Vikings were the only unbeaten team in the NFL, they weren't perfect. Four games separated the Bucs and Vikings in the standings, but Dungy knew the distance between the teams was much closer than that.

"Tony made a statement to us last night that we've played them even for a long time and they just don't have any respect for us," Warren Sapp said. "They really feel like they're just that much of a better ballclub than us. Tony said looking at the film from over the years, there's no way you can convince him that that team is better than us. He said, 'Envision yourself being the one to make the play tomorrow.' That's what we did."

Playing with determination and perhaps some desperation, the Bucs snapped their four-game losing streak with a 41-13 win. Shaun King passed for 267 yards and a career-high four touchdowns and the offense needed 19 plays to score a record-tying 31 points in the first half. It was the best offensive showing in two seasons for the Bucs, who racked up 413 yards. Tampa Bay's offense, which had not scored a touchdown in seven quarters, reached the end zone on its first three possessions.

King played catch with receiver Keyshawn Johnson (six for 121 yards, and one touchdown). At 4-4, it remains to be seen if the Bucs can play catch-up. "Well, we're not exactly where we want to be but we're not out of it," Sapp said. "That's the one thing we had to do was come out here and get us a win. This ballclub has been known to finish strong. We had to get us a win right here to end October and championships are won in November and December. So we're going to see where we go from here."

After the game, Vikings receiver Randy Moss essentially supported Dungy's contention. "It's hard to see Tampa Bay put up 41 points," said Moss, who earned an ejection late in the game for making contact with an official. "Luckily (for them), it happened (against) us."

The game was played in blinding sunshine, but all the stars came out for Tampa Bay. As is always the case, the defense set the tone when Sapp - who is playing better than he did when he won NFL Defensive Player of the Year - sacked Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper on the first series and forced a fumble that Marcus Jones recovered at the 14- yard line.

Two plays later, Johnson caught a 9-yard pass from King for a 7-0 lead. "I got a one-on-one situation and I took it home," Sapp said. "The ball came out and luckily Marcus was heads-up enough to run and get on the ball and from that point the offense punched it in and we had a fire going. We kept pouring gas on it."

Warrick Dunn exploded for 89 yards on 11 carries and added a 23-yard touchdown reception in the first half. Derrick Brooks added his first NFL touchdown by returning an interception 34 yards. Of the Bucs' 413 yards, Johnson and Dunn accounted for 233 (56 percent).

It was not by accident. Wednesday, after hearing King criticized on talk-radio shows, Johnson paid a visit to the home of the Bucs quarterback. For more than three hours, the Pro Bowl receiver talked and King listened. "I just talked about what type of football player I am, what type of football player he could be, why I was brought here, why Warrick Dunn is the player that he is, why 28 and 19 have to eat until they're full," Johnson said. "And I think he pretty much agreed."

The Bucs scaled back their offense and Johnson encouraged King to demand the game plan only include throws he was comfortable making. "If that means I've got to run slants all day long, then you're going to have to throw them all day long," Johnson said. "If I run hitches all day, than that's what it is. He agreed and I think we accomplished our mission."

King, who threw three interceptions in the second half in an Oct. 19 loss to the Lions, seems to own the Vikings. In two games this season, he has carved them up for 562 yards and four touchdowns. "Shaun didn't panic," Dunn said. "He was the quarterback that we had when we won three games. His poise was there, he played well, he made smart decisions with the football."

All week long, the Bucs insisted their defeat of the 7-0 Vikings two years ago would have nothing to do with Sunday's outcome. But the game was so similar, it was eerie. Not only were the Bucs 3-4 in '98, but they also had their most productive game offensively. And like two years ago, Tampa Bay never punted. But because the Bucs scored so quickly, the defense's tongues were dragging after participating in 49 first-half plays.

The Bucs essentially put the game away with an 8:35 drive to start the third quarter that resulted in a 47-yard field goal by Martin Gramatica. That was longer than Tampa Bay held the ball the entire first half. "I think it sent a statement to those guys that we were going to execute, we were going to control the clock, hold on to the football and make plays," Dunn said. "And they were just going to have to outscore us if they were going to beat us."

Isn't that usually what the Vikings make teams do? "We feel like we're in a position to at least make a push," Bucs center Jeff Christy said. "You have to keep this going and keep this feeling going. That might have happened when we started 3-0. Everyone was making Super Bowl reservations or whatever. But it's hard as hell to win in the National Football League."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 2000