FINALLY!
The bomb scare came when victory seemed at hand, but the Tampa Bay Bucs survived it Sunday at the Metrodome. It was a 40-yard pass launched by Vikings quarterback Warren Moon to Qadry Ismail for a touchdown and the game-tying two-point conversion throw to Cris Carter. After containing one of the league's most explosive offenses, suddenly it seemed the Bucs were going to blow it. "Sometimes you feel the air come out of the balloon," said Bucs center Ed Brady. "But there wasn't that feeling on the sideline."

The team that rarely catches a break then got one when the Vikings failed to catch a punt. Brady recovered a muffed punt by Minnesota's Eric Guliford to set up Mike Husted's game-winning 22-yard field goal in overtime to give the Bucs an improbable come-from-ahead 20-17 upset of the Vikings. The Bucs' defense, which entered the game with only nine sacks all season, dumped Moon five times and whacked him on nearly every attempt to help snap a six-game losing streak.

It was the third straight loss for the Vikings (7-5), who began the day as the co-leader with Chicago in the NFC Central and ended it one game behind the Bears. Those two teams meet again Thursday. Sunday's game could have been a disastrous collapse for the Bucs.

Tampa Bay controlled the game and led from the start, forcing Moon to throw a first-quarter interception that safety Tony Covington returned 38 yards to set up the Bucs' first touchdown. Bucs quarterback Craig Erickson completed 20 of 38 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown. But more surprisingly, he wasn't sacked by one of the NFL's best pass rushes.

But despite three drives inside the Vikings' 35-yard line, the Bucs' offense failed to produce any points, as Husted missed on field goals of 51 and 45 yards and Tampa Bay turned the ball over on downs. Still, the Bucs held on to the lead. But the Moon ball to Ismail changed all that and sent the game into overtime. "That's the way a winning team should react to an adverse situation," Brady said. "They made the two-point conversion and we figured we'd just beat them in overtime."

What Brady never counted on was finding the ball at his feet after Guliford muffed the punt. "That thing was big, boy," Brady said of the fumbled football. "It looked as big as a pumpkin. It felt good, because the ball has been bouncing the other way."

Guliford had fielded a punt cleanly on a fair catch at the 18-yard line just seconds earlier, but the Vikings were offside and the Bucs elected to punt again. This time, Bucs special teams kamikaze Curtis Buckley shoved Vikings defensive back Brian Davis into Guliford, and the collision made him lose the ball. "I was just in the right place at the right time," Brady said. "I think Curtis is the one who made the play, and Dan has been putting them up high and giving us a chance to run under it. Curtis made a really good play forcing his man into the return man. That's a heads-up play."

Guliford blamed himself for the dropped punt. "I was disgusted," he said. "I really couldn't believe I dropped the ball in that type of situation."

That set up Husted, who atoned for his earlier misses with the first game-winning field goal of his career. "I don't really know what went through my mind, except there was no discussion on whether we should go off-tackle left or not," said Bucs coach Sam Wyche. "We did call timeout to see if Michael wanted to center the ball up and he said, `Let's just kick the ball and go home.' "

Not even the going home part was a sure thing. The Bucs awoke to a winter storm that dumped a foot of snow on Minneapolis, closing the airport in just the 3 1/2 hours it took to play the game. More than 16,000 fans decided not to even show up Sunday. And the Vikings were looking to use Tampa Bay to kick around and pull themselves out of a losing streak.

But the Bucs' defense roughed up Moon and got sacks from linebacker Hardy Nickerson, safety Marty Carter and defensive linemen Eric Curry, Mark Wheeler and Brad Culpepper. "Our defense is capable of this," Wyche said. "I don't know why it hasn't been this way all along. Maybe it just clicked. We preached to them all week long: If you can get into his face, it'll create some errant throws, we'll get a pick here or there and we'll take him out of that accurate throwing motion."

Vikings coach Dennis Green said his team did not take Tampa Bay lightly, but that's the way it played. `There's no way our guys played Tampa Bay lightly," Green said. "They wouldn't take anybody lightly because they didn't have the momentum and playmaking we had earlier. We didn't have the quarterback running for his life every time he goes to pass. We didn't have the interceptions we had earlier. We didn't have the 100-yard rushing games."

After giving up huge rushing days to Detroit's Barry Sanders and Seattle's Chris Warren, the Bucs held Vikings running back Terry Allen to 54 yards on 16 carries. And the Bucs' offense controlled the ball, twice moving it out of its own end zone. In fact, it was a 14-play, 86-yard drive that ate up eight minutes of the fourth quarter and set up Husted's 27-yard field goal that appeared to put the game away, giving the Bucs a 17-9 lead with 5:24 remaining. "That was the turning point in the game," Wyche said. "When (we got) all the way backed up, what do you do? Do you concede the way so many Buc teams in the past have? They proved to themselves they're a different football team."

The victory brought some relief to the embattled Wyche, who argued that officials' calls cost the Bucs last week's game in Seattle. "In our hearts we've won two in a row now on the road and we've played good football three weeks in a row," Wyche said. "Except for that one goal-line shot there at Detroit, we might really be looking at something. It's a shame, it's a crying shame that this isn't two in a row."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1994