Laugher in the rain
The Buccaneers were all very anxious to become exposed to the playoff atmosphere, but you have to won-der what all the fuss was about. Frankly, the conditions stank. The sky was gray and hung wet and low like a shower curtain all day. And the biggest drops did not fall from the sky, but from the hands of orange-clad receivers.

Tampa Bay would like to think one day it can come into a place like Carolina in the final month of the season still fighting for a playoff spot. But after three straight wins, the Bucs don't want you to take Sunday's 24-0 loss to the precocious Panthers the wrong way. Just think of it as a reign delay.

Carolina's defense virtually accounted for nearly all the points Sunday. Defensive end Shawn King returned Trent Dilfer's fumble 12 yards for a touchdown and added an interception to set up another score in a 24-0 shutout before an announced crowd of 57,623 at Ericsson Stadium. The loss did more than snap a three-game winning streak for the Bucs (4-9) and end their slim playoff chances. It also served as a grim reminder that improved or not, Tampa Bay has just witnessed its 14th straight losing season.

"It kind of makes you put everything into perspective," Bucs linebacker Lonnie Marts said. "You're 3-0, you're on a little winning streak and you could get a big head. But this game lets you know that you're just not that good yet. You've got to go out and work on some things. It puts you back where you belong."

Darned if the second-year NFL franchise hasn't loosened up the Bible Belt another notch, nearly locking up a playoff spot and causing some raucous celebrations right off the Billy Graham Parkway. The Panthers (9-4) took a step closer to the playoffs by clinching their first winning season and building the longest win streak in the NFC with their fourth straight victory. The Panthers also remained unbeaten after six games in majestic Ericsson, which was filled with empty seats because of the bad weather.

"We got a taste of what December football is all about, playoff-type football," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "Carolina has an excellent team. I think we learned some things. We learned how far we've got to go."

Dilfer entered the game as one of the league's hottest quarterbacks. But he was in over his head against the blitzing defense, which has allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season. Stockpiled with veteran free agents at nine of their 11 starting positions on defense, the Panthers forced two fumbles, intercepted Dilfer twice and reached the end zone before their offense did.

On the first play of the second quarter, Dilfer was sacked by cornerback Toi Cook, who forced a fumble that was returned 12 yards by King for a touchdown to leave the Bucs trailing 10-0. It stayed that way until Carolina Pro Bowl cornerback Eric Davis baited Dilfer into throwing a pass in the flat for Karl Williams and returned the interception 39 yards to set up the second TD, a 1-yard run by Howard Griffith.

Dilfer finished 23-of-41 for 236 yards with the two interceptions. He was sacked four times and took a pocket pounding. But his biggest failure was getting his team into the end zone. In fact, the game ended with the Panthers mounting a goal-line stand and stuffing the Bucs on three plays from the 4. It was the first shutout in the Panthers' brief history and only the sixth in the NFL this season. Two of those goose eggs were laid by the Bucs. "There's a lot of pride in getting a shutout," Davis said. "You know, they're hard to come by in this league."

Dilfer didn't get much help. His receivers dropped at least a half-dozen passes - two each by Courtney Hawkins, Robb Thomas and Jackie Harris. It almost was a game that made you long for Alvin Harper, who was healthy, in uniform, warmed up and on the sideline for every snap. "We felt it was the best way to go," Dungy said. "We did drop some balls and we're not very happy about that. But we just played the guys that gave us the best chance to win today. He's probably not 100 percent, but he's okay though. He could've played."

The Tampa Bay defense might not have been up to Carolina's standards, but it did its job and kept the game close. On seven of the Panthers' 11 possessions, Tampa Bay held them to three-and-out. In fact, 78 of the 215 total yards Carolina gained Sunday came on its first possession, when it was forced to settle for John Kasay's 23-yard field goal. Tampa Bay held quarterback Kerry Collins to 83 yards on 14-of-24 passing.

But after King's fourth-quarter interception of a deflected Dilfer pass, the Tampa Bay defense sort of gave up the ghost. It allowed running back Anthony Johnson, who rushed for 111 yards, to escape for a 25-yard TD run. The touchdown snapped a streak of seven games in which Bucs opponents had scored 17 points or fewer. "Three-and-out is adequate," Bucs cornerback Martin Mayhew said. "It's okay. But to be a really good defense, you've got to make big plays. You've got to come down with the ball. You've got to scoop fumbles. We haven't done it."

What the Bucs got Sunday was an express ride back to reality. And you know what? Sometimes, reality bites. "I don't think we're a great football team," Dilfer said. "I don't think anyone in our locker room would say that. But we're definitely good enough to beat the Carolina Panthers and win a lot of games. But we're not a great football team. I think we will be, I really do. And I think one of the reasons will be because of experiences like this."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1996