Bucs keep the faith
This was exactly the kind of game the Bucs used to play with their collars buttoned. They would put together back-to-back wins, oddsmakers would favor them against some crestfallen team with a stinky record and they would fall flat on their face masks in front of the hometown fans. There are NFL teams that carve through their schedule like a buzz saw, but the Bucs always have tripped over their own cord.

Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints had all the makings of another meltdown. But this time Tampa Bay and its smothering defense was about as tough as roadhouse steak. John Lynch recovered a fumble and intercepted a fourth-quarter pass that preserved a 13-7 win before 40,203 at Houlihan's Stadium.

It was the third straight victory for the Bucs (4-8), who can talk about running the table to finish with a .500 record without hearing snickers. "This definitely shows this is not the same old Bucs. I'm tired of seeing that headline in the newspaper," defensive end Chidi Ahanotu said. "Everybody was kind of nervous this week. This is the exact situation we've been in before: a team we're supposed to beat and then we have a letdown. This shows me there's more great things to come for this team."

There was no letdown for quarterback Trent Dilfer, who continued to have the hot hand, completing 20-of-34 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown. The Bucs built a 13-0 lead after taking the second-half kickoff and driving 80 yards in nine plays for their only touchdown.

The offense was shut out the rest of the way and lost two fumbles in the game, but the running back tandem of Errict Rhett and Mike Alstott allowed the Bucs to sit on the ball for nearly all of the final 4:45 after Lynch's interception. Alstott (7 catches, 91 yards, 1 TD) and Rhett (21 carries, 87 yards) combined for 186 of Tampa Bay's 381 total yards against the Saints.

It was the fifth straight loss for New Orleans (2-10), which hasn't won since coach Jim Mora resigned in October. But the Bucs let the Saints stick around until the final play. Which begs the question: Do the Bucs always have to win in a nail-biter? "Probably in the long run, it's going to help us," Tony Dungy said. "Because when you get in those championship drives or playoff drives, you're going to have to win close games, you're going to have to beat good teams on the road and play 60 minutes. And we're learning how to do that."

Once again, the Bucs relied on their defense. They intercepted Saints quarterback Jim Everett three times. It was the sixth straight game the Bucs have held their opponent under 300 yards and not allowed a point in the fourth quarter. The last team to go seven straight games without allowing more than 17 points was the 1994 Pittsburgh Steelers, who came within one play of the Super Bowl.

For the second week, Lynch was Johnny on the spot. With the Saints driving and only 39 yards from a possible game-winning touchdown, the Bucs strong safety intercepted an overthrown pass intended for Torrance Small with 4:45 remaining. Lynch somewhat foreshadowed the turnover when he pleaded in the huddle for his teammates to make a play, then made it himself.

"John Lynch said it, before his interception, during that drive: `If we want to take that next step, we've got to start now. We've got to come up with the big play,' " linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "It just so happened he came up with a big pick."

It was Lynch's fourth-quarter interception at San Diego a week ago that led to the Bucs' go-ahead touchdown in upsetting the Chargers. The Bucs had only seven interceptions in their first nine games. They've had six in the past two weeks. "Turnovers are very important. We work on it as much as anybody and we were frustrated early in the year when we weren't coming up with them," Dungy said. "But they come in bunches and good things start to happen when you're playing hard. I thought our hitting was outstanding today. We had a lot of guys flying around."

But it's not as if the Bucs did a very good job protecting the ball themselves. Rhett lost a fumble at the New Orleans 24, one play after Lynch had forced one.

And Alstott was stripped of the ball at the end of a 25-yard pass play at the New Orleans 43. In fact, Alstott nearly was the goat when he fumbled at the Tampa Bay 4-yard line after Lynch's interception, but center Tony Mayberry recovered it to avert disaster. "We certainly didn't want to fumble there and that's something we're going to have to work on," Dungy said. "Our backs don't normally put the ball on the ground and that could've been disastrous. Fortunately, it wasn't. I think Mike learned from that in those situations you definitely have to keep the ball tucked away."

The Bucs dominated the first half but had only two Michael Husted field goals to show for it. And when Everett hit tight end Tony Johnson on fourth and goal for a touchdown to cut the Bucs' lead to 13-7 in the third quarter, there was reason for Dungy to squirm. "That's when you're always concerned, when you're the favorite, when you're playing at home and you're statistically dominating the game and you don't have the points to show for it," Dungy said. "That can be a concern. You don't want the other team to get any momentum."

But after three straight victories, it's the Bucs with the momentum as they head to Carolina. One by one, the skeletons from past teams are being buried. Remember last season, when the 5-2 Bucs lost to Atlanta 24-21 and the wheels came off as they dropped five of the next six games? Or '92, when 3-1 Tampa Bay lost 24-17 to the Colts and finished the season 5-11? Or how about '90, when the 3-1 Bucs lost twice in three weeks to a Dallas Cowboys team that went 1-15 the year before?

New Orleans wasn't a Big Easy, but the win is all that matters. "I think it's another step. When you beat a team you're supposed to beat, that's a clear sign you're on your way," linebacker Hardy Nickerson said. "Unfortunately, in the past we haven't been able to do that. But I think we've put together something special around here."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1996