Tampa Bay humbles Vikings again, 38-24
The field is 100 yards long. The footballs are regulation size. The opponent carries the standard number of 53 men on its roster, and it never, ever puts more than 11 on the field for any given play. It seems appropriate to recount these basic truths in the wake of the Vikings' 38-24 loss Sunday to Tampa Bay, the third consecutive year they have crumbled at Raymond James Stadium. The Buccaneers have outscored them 120-51 in those games, consuming them in different ways but ultimately with the same totality as they did Sunday.

The Vikings fumbled the opening kickoff, had a touchdown called back by penalty, trailed 24-0 midway through the second quarter and allowed the previously dormant Buccaneers offense to move the ball with historic precision. They trudged off the field angry and embarrassed by their inability to compete with one of their closest rivals -- as well as by a winless road streak that has hit 15 games. They are also 0-5 at Raymond James since it opened in 1998. Receiver Randy Moss, still flustered after a locker room run-in with a Tampa radio reporter, felt outnumbered. "They've got that 13th man," Moss said, his erroneous math forgivable given the Buccaneers' domination. "In all honesty, there's a lot of guys in the NFL that can't play on the road, because it's nerve-wracking and . . . the crowd noise is getting to them."

Effort level has yet to be a question for this team, and Moss estimated that 90 percent of his teammates "showed a lot of fight and left it out on the field." Ominously, he added that "10 percent just weren't ready to play." The Vikings traveled to Tampa a day early and re-arranged their typical road schedule to help minimize distractions. "I felt like it would give them a training camp weekend where they could think about nothing but the game," coach Mike Tice said. "It helped some of us, but it didn't help all of us."

The Vikings briefly battled back into contention. Sparked by Michael Bennett's team-record 85-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, they fought back to 31-17 with 2:07 left in the third. Rookie Jack Brewer recovered an onside kick, but on the next play, Daunte Culpepper threw a pass wildly into the arms of defensive tackle Warren Sapp, the first of Culpepper's two interceptions. Six plays later, Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson threw his fifth touchdown pass to seal the game. "We had some life on the sideline," Tice said. "The guys hung to that point, and that zapped us."

Culpepper acknowledged the mistake as well. "I've been trying to do too much on those types of plays," he said. Much of the damage, however, already had been done. Nick Davis fumbled the opening kickoff, leading to the Buccaneers' first touchdown. Corbin Lacina's holding call wiped out a 40-yard touchdown pass to Moss. And the Vikings, while stopping running back Mike Alstott as promised, had been unable to throw Johnson off rhythm.

Tampa Bay's early run sparked a number of personnel changes, as Tice replaced Davis with Moe Williams on kickoffs and also benched starting cornerbacks Corey Chavous and Eric Kelly. Culpepper talked Tice out of replacing him in the fourth quarter; under heavy pressure, Culpepper completed 19 of 30 passes for 231 yards while raising his season interception total to 14. Moss, playing aside Chris Walsh and Cedric James after Derrick Alexander left because of a sprained knee, caught four passes for 41 yards.

Tice was mostly agitated with the play of his secondary, an assessment that was hard to argue with after Johnson -- playing with sore ribs and without his No. 2 and No. 3 receivers -- completed 24 of 31 passes for 313 yards. He was neither sacked nor intercepted, and his 148.3 passer rating was only 10.7 points lower than the highest possible. Tice had mandated that the Vikings stop Alstott -- and to their credit he managed only 55 yards rushing on 26 carries. The Vikings pass defenders, however, spent most of their afternoon backing off of Tampa Bay's receivers, and as a result Keyshawn Johnson and Karl Williams combined for 13 receptions, 182 yards and three touchdowns. "I was disappointed in the play of our secondary, to be flat-out honest with you," Tice said. "I felt there was adequate pressure based on the type of [quick-drop] schemes they were running."

Brian Williams and Tyrone Carter replaced Chavous and Kelly, respectively, while newcomer Jason Perry played much of the second half after free safety Ronnie Bradford suffered a concussion. "Whatever they think is best," Kelly said in summarizing the changes, which did little to halt the Buccaneers -- who finished with a season-high 27 first downs and 446 overall yards.

Said Chavous: "We're trying our best. But any time I don't step up and have a really good game, or maybe some of the other guys don't step up and have a really good game, the heat is going to come back on me and it should. I was brought here to be a leader of the secondary. I have to do a better job."

To be sure, the Vikings' locker room was not short of responses Sunday afternoon. That they fell to 2-6 was not shocking, considering the Buccaneers appear to be among the NFC's elite teams. That the Vikings trailed by 24 points midway through the second quarter, a week after soundly defeating the Chicago Bears 25-7, left many perplexed and angry. "I just can't see how we can play at home against a good team like Chicago," Moss said, "and then come down here to Tampa and fold under pressure. I don't understand that."

Kevin Seifert The Star Tribune November 2002