BACK ON TRACK
The Bucs finally find their offense and stun the Vikings 27-24 in a shootout at Raymond James Stadium. The blueprint that was supposed to arrive in early September finally was delivered to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The plans called for a well-oiled offensive machine to execute to perfection and march straight to the playoffs. That and a consistently strong defense was exactly what was expected at the start of the season, when the words "Bucs" and "Super Bowl contenders" appeared in the same sentence for the first time in history.
Better late than never, and maybe - just maybe - in time to rescue a season that appeared headed for disaster. For the first time since last season's playoff victory against Detroit, the Bucs fired on all cylinders. And then some. They did what almost everyone thought impossible, knocking the mighty Minnesota Vikings from the ranks of the unbeaten. With the much-maligned offense clicking for the first time all season, the Bucs outgunned the Vikings 27-24 in front of a sell-out crowd of 64,979. "It was just something that had to be done," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "We said our best might not be enough today. We had to do whatever was necessary. We were going to take them 15 rounds and let's see who's standing at the end."
Stunningly, it was the Bucs in a heavyweight slugfest for the ages. An offense that's had little punch all season went toe to toe with a scoring machine that's been as hot as perhaps any team ever - and won. "We needed to play a game that they didn't want to play with us and we did it," quarterback Trent Dilfer said.
With the offense (yes, the offense) carrying the load, the Bucs (4-4) became the first team to even push the Vikings (7-1) into a fourth quarter that meant something. But it was the first quarter that might have set the tone. From the first drive, it was obvious something was drastically different.
Dilfer and the running game marched the Bucs to their first offensive touchdown in the first half this season and the rest became history. Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott, who had been bottled up behind a struggling offensive line all season, had a record-setting day. They led the Bucs to a franchise-record 246 yards rushing. Alstott gained 128 yards on 19 carries, Dunn carried 18 times for 115 yards and the team had two 100-yard rushers in the same game for the first time. "Warrick and Mike ran with a passion," Coach Tony Dungy said.
And Dilfer and the receivers played with a passion that seemed to be missing until the quarterback called a players-only meeting Wednesday. Dilfer turned a quarterbacks and receivers meeting into an air-clearing session and the results were stunning. Dilfer completed 11 of 22 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers weren't stunning compared to Randall Cunningham's (21 of 25 for 291 yards and two touchdowns), but the difference was Dilfer made the plays when it mattered most. He also got a clutch performance from Reidel Anthony (five catches for 65 yards and a touchdown), who turned in the most gritty performance of his professional career.
"There was no science to it," Dilfer said of the meeting. "I wanted to encourage them and let them know that their quarterback believed in them 110 percent. You make mistakes in this league. I'm sick and tired of hearing that you can't make mistakes and win. No, you can make mistakes and win if you're able to overcome and you have the confidence to overcome them. That was my way of trying to instill that confidence with them."
It worked as the Bucs matched the Vikings point for point until the third quarter. But, just as it started to appear the offensive outpouring would go to waste, Derrick Brooks and the defense came to the rescue and became the first team to hold the Vikings to less than 29 points. The Bucs out-scored the Vikings 10-0 in the fourth quarter.
Name the two biggest defensive plays of the game - heck, maybe the season - and Brooks spearheaded both of them. Brooks intercepted a pass from Cunningham, who was knocked off balance by Alshermond Singleton, and returned it 25 yards to set up a field goal that cut Minnesota's lead to 24-20 with 11:47 left in the game. Brooks also set up the winning touchdown (a 6-yard run by Alstott with 5:48 left) when he hit Cunningham and Ronde Barber finished off the sack to force a punt. "Once our offense got rolling we just said we've got to find a way to get a stop," Sapp said. "It might not come this series or the next series, but we've got to get a stop."
It was all part of that late-arriving blueprint and it included an update from Dungy. "They hadn't played in a game in the fourth quarter where it was tight all year," safety John Lynch said. "Tony said we're going to wear them down. Sure, enough, the story played out perfectly."
Just like it was supposed to all those months ago when the playoffs seemed a given. But, at least, they're suddenly a possibility again. "That's how you win a ballgame as a team," Sapp said. "Tony calls it the money months. November and December. That's the time you make your money."
Pat Yasinskas, The Tampa Tribune 2 November 1998