A big hurt
Frost bites. That's one thing that remains true for the Buccaneers, who continue to wither in cold weather. It happened again Sunday at Soldier Field. Shaun King, who grew up in sunny St. Petersburg and played college football indoors at Tulane, never seemed to get his arm warmed up against the Bears.

So if the 37-degree temperatures and a wind chill of 16 didn't bother him, something did. King was intercepted twice - including one that safety Tony Parrish returned 38 yards for a touchdown - in a 13-10 loss to Chicago. The loss droped the Bucs to 6-5 overall - and remembrrrrr - 0-18 in games played in under 40 degrees. Not only were the Bucs' playoff hopes crippled, but two of their Pro Bowl players left the game with injuries.

The most serious was fullback Mike Alstott, who sustained a sprained left knee in the second quarter and may not return for 2-4 weeks, if at all. He will have an MRI exam today in Tampa. Safety John Lynch dislocated his right shoulder in the first quarter, but he hopes to play next week against Buffalo if tests do not reveal more damage. "We'd talked earlier in the week. Who cares how we win?" Bucs safety Ronde Barber said. "Let's just get up here, win the damn game and go home. We didn't and we lost some key guys along the way."

After the game, Bucs players and coaches did not express much optimism about their playoff chances. Seven NFC teams have fewer losses than Tampa Bay. "We're in trouble," guard Frank Middleton said. "We've got to beat Green Bay in Green Bay, we've got to beat the Rams at home, we've got to beat Buffalo at home, Dallas at home. We're in trouble and the only way we can get out of it is 5-0."

Even considering the thermometer, the Bucs had every reason to believe they would beat the Bears. Tampa Bay had won six straight against Chicago, including a 41-0 laugher earlier this season. The Bears had won only twice this season prior to Sunday and were down to third-string quarterback Shane Matthews, who had been cut seven times in his NFL career.

The Bears didn't do much to change their fortunes - extending a streak of not scoring an offensive touchdown against the Bucs to 18 quarters. But King's two interceptions and a third-quarter fumble by running back Warrick Dunn led to 10 Bears points. "That adds to the frustration a little bit," Bucs defensive end Chidi Ahanotu said. "Defensively, you hold them to six points and you want to look up and say you won the game."

Facing heavy pressure most of the game, King was unable to attempt a pass in the third quarter and completed just three the second half for a net of 10 yards passing. He did scramble effectively, rushing 11 times for 72 yards, including a nifty 9-yard run that tied the score at 10 in the third quarter. Dunn's lost fumble - only the fifth of his career in 997 touches - set up what proved to be the winning 48-yard field goal with 10:02 left. "I fumbled at the wrong time," Dunn said. "But I had two hands on the ball. Whenever I get in traffic, I've always tried to get two hands on the ball and protect myself. I think one guy was pulling me one way and I saw the other guy (Bears linebacker Clyde Simmons), so I tried to hold onto it tighter."

There still was plenty of time for King and the Bucs to rally. He completed two passes to Jacquez Green for first downs and ran for two others to drive the Bucs to the Chicago 40. But he underthrew a pass intended for Keyshawn Johnson that Bears rookie linebacker Brian Urlacher intercepted with 2 minutes to play. "I didn't force it, I just made a bad pass," King said. "I tried to throw it high and it came out low. It all comes back to me. I'll say it up front. I have to play better than I played today."

The Bucs used all three timeouts and looked as if they would get the ball back with about 1:30 left by forcing the Bears into third- and-9 at the Chicago 41. But running back Marlon Barnes carried for 10 yards and a first down to, um, ice the game. "They ran a running play, a cutback run, and I think we overpursued it a little bit," coach Tony Dungy said. "That was one time when we didn't get the job done. That's one time when you've got to stop them and force them to punt. You definitely need to stop them in that situation and they made the play to ice the game. That leaves a bad taste in your mouth."

Dungy and Bucs players did not cut King much slack for his mistakes following the game. In the Bucs' six victories, King has thrown 13 touchdowns and two interceptions. But in the five losses, he has been intercepted 8 times and thrown two TDs. "They're two interceptions you really can't throw and win the ballgame," Dungy said. "That made it tough on us. But we had chances."

Chicago played well on defense, but no one was asking "Who let the St. Bernards out?" The Bears allowed Tampa Bay to rush for a season- high 165 yards. But their 20th-ranked passing defense threw a blanket over Bucs receivers in the second half. "The interception killed us at the half," Barber said. "They moved the ball on us, yeah. But defensively I think we stopped them when we needed to and forced some field goals. We forced one miss. What can you say? The way it is this year, 11-5 is still going to be tough to get in, and that's assuming we win the next five. Looking at the overall picture, we really shot ourselves in the foot today."

Rick Stroud , The St.Petersburg Times 2000