Enjoy the view from on top
The first thing you notice is the view. On a clear day, you'd swear you can see Vince Lombardi's house. It sure is high up here. The air is thin, and the footing is slippery. It's a hassle getting here, what with the traffic jams and all, but if you ask Tony Dungy, he'll tell you it's worth the trip. Gee. So this is what first place looks like. As it turns out, the big deal about Monday night's game was not which quarterback was in the driver's seat. Just which team.
So go ahead. Say it. Allow the words to drip off your tongue. The first-place Tampa Bay Bucs. The red-hot Tampa Bay Bucs. The how-close-was-that-bullet Tampa Bay Bucs. The Bucs earned their adjectives against Minnesota. They overcame both the Vikings and themselves, hanging on 24-17 in a game that was only about, well, everything. It was about prime time and prime position, about a new quarterback and a new hope, about first place and the last play.
Okay, technically, the Bucs are only tied with the Detroit Lions for first in the NFC Central. But for the first time in memory, Tampa Bay doesn't have to worry about wild-card formulas and scrambling for leftovers. Let the other teams worry about that. It is no longer a question of whether the Bucs are a playoff team. They answered that Monday night, with their fifth consecutive victory. Now, the questions get tougher (and better). Now that they are in first place, can they stay there?
Now that the playoffs seem assured, how deep can they go? Now that they look like something to be reckoned with at home, how possible is home-field advantage. This is known as raising the stakes. Three-quarters of the season is gone, and the stretch drive begins this week. Dare to look ahead. What do you see from here?
It would be nice, of course, to believe the Bucs are on their way, that they will treat the playoffs like a parade, entering marching and posing. It would be nice to think that Shaun King will improve every week, and that Warrick Dunn will come back, and that the defense will go back to harassing everyone in its path, and that the rest of the NFC might as well be dogs chasing cars for all the good it will do them. We know better, of course. The Bucs don't do anything easy.
The victory over the Vikings was born of a difficult delivery, and past history suggests the games still upcoming will follow the same plot line. The offense will continue to play as if it is going uphill, and every game will go into the fourth quarter. You can see it from here. The Bucs will go into their final drive against the Chicago Bears, and something very important will be on the line. That said, this was as big a regular-season game as the Bucs have won in a long, long time. They won with a rookie quarterback, with a rookie running back, against a bunch of wide receivers that annually refuses to believe the Bucs are a great defense, on Monday night, after fumbling away a lead, for first place.
Also, there were corn dogs. It says something very good about this team that it figured out a way to win when defeat was in the air. For some reason, news of the Bucs' prowess on defense has been slow reaching Minnesota, and the Vikings still kept coming up with third and 11s. It was only when Jeff George's last pass sailed out of bounds, and Brad Culpepper's arms raised into the air, that you were sure the Bucs were going to survive. If it was only that moment that secured victory, however, it was still a victory full of promises about next week and the week after, a victory that allows you to dream a little bit. Around here, that is rare enough not to send back to the kitchen.
Forever, it seems, or at least since the 5-0 beginning of 1997, the Bucs have been scrambling from behind, hoping for help, waiting for things to come together. Now, all they have to do is win. Against Detroit at home. Against Oakland on the West Coast. Against Green Bay on Sunday. Against Chicago in the cold. Yes, they can win all of those games. Yes, they can lose them all. That was the problem with most of the game against the Vikings. It was hard to decide if the team was playing well or not. The defense would make a great play, then give up an acre.
As for the Bucs offense, third down was a mystery. It fumbled away a touchdown. It settled for a field goal after a first and goal. It dropped passes. In other words, it was business as usual. The offense didn't miss a beat under King. Which was the bad news. On the other hand, you can expect King to get better down the stretch. You get the feeling this team wants this kid to be the answer, so much so it has added a sense of urgency to the rest of the offense. How far it takes the Bucs is anybody's guess. But with a quarter of the season left to go, first place is a pretty good place to start.
Gary Shelton , The St.Petersburg Times 1999