Messin' With Texans
Among the thousands of seats that went unused at soggy Raymond James Stadium on Sunday was the one in the press box where Bucs General Manager Rich McKay usually sits. Freed earlier in the week to pursue work elsewhere, McKay spent the day preparing for a meeting with Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and missed a Bucs game for the first time since the day his son John was born in 1992.

He didn't miss much, though. Capping yet another tumultuous week, the Bucs toyed with the second-year Houston Texans in methodical fashion, dominating them on defense but producing just enough offense to record a 16-3 victory. ``If you count [the deactivation of wide receiver] Keyshawn [Johnson], we're now 2-0 after incidents,'' Bucs left tackle Roman Oben said.

The Bucs are also 2-0 in their past two games, making this the first time they have won back-to-back games all season. More importantly, though, the Bucs are 7-7 overall. That and the fact NFC playoff contenders such as Seattle and Minnesota lost Sunday mean the Bucs' faint hopes of earning one of two wild-card berths have life today. That point certainly was not lost on the Bucs players, many of whom admitted to glancing up at the out-of-town scoreboard and taking note of the results as the clock wound down on their victory. ``Yeah, we snuck a peek up there a little bit,'' safety John Lynch said. ``You can't help it, really. This was a big win for us, so now I guess we go home and put that `NFL Sunday Ticket' package to use and see what happens.''

Lynch probably didn't learn much there, at least not in terms of what is happening with his GM. Word is, though, that should his meeting with Blank go well, McKay could be named the Falcons' GM early this week. That would set the stage for another circus-like atmosphere at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday. The Bucs host the Falcons that day, but if they continue to play the way they did Sunday, the atmosphere won't matter.

Displaying the stifling defensive style that McKay always sought from his teams, the Bucs allowed the Texans to gain just 65 yards rushing, 42 passing and limited them to seven first downs. ``We're starting to play the type of football that we know we could have and should have played all year,'' said Lynch, whose unit played all of Sunday's game without All-Pro tackle Warren Sapp.

As he did during the second half a week ago, Sapp walked the sideline Sunday nursing a left foot sprain that forced the Bucs to move nose tackle Anthony McFarland to Sapp's under tackle spot and insert Chartric Darby at nose tackle. ``I think a lot of people forget that we won a Super Bowl with Chuck Darby at nose tackle last year,'' Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. ``The guy's a good player.''

He sure played well Sunday. But so did McFarland and fellow linemen Greg Spires and Cleveland Pinkney, all of whom had sacks while helping allow the Texans to convert just three of their 11 third- down opportunities. The Texans' inability to convert third downs or big plays wasn't all the Bucs' doing, though. Wide receiver Andre Johnson let three passes slip through his hands on plays in which he beat the coverage deep downfield. ``We're not going to say those three plays changed the game, because there were 60 other plays out there where we could have done something different,'' said Texans quarterback Dave Ragone, who played for injured starter David Carr. ``I think those three plays scared them, but you have to give the credit where it's due. They came out and played hard today. That's still a Super Bowl-caliber defense they have there.''

This time last year, opponents were starting to talk about the Bucs offense in much the same way. A year later, though, that offense is still struggling to complete scoring drives, mostly because it can't play clean. Penalties have been a problem all season and they were again Sunday, when a holding call against guard Cosey Coleman erased what would have been a 50-yard pass to Michael Pittman. That error and the inability to finish drives forced the Bucs to rely almost exclusively on Martin Gramatica for their points. Though they moved the ball well for the most part, gaining 398 yards, including 161 rushing, they converted just four of their 14 third downs. ``We did leave some points out there, and we didn't really finish our drives the way we'd like to,'' Jon Gruden said. ``But I'm still pretty happy with the offense. We moved the ball well.''

Thomas Jones moved it the best of anyone. The fourth- year running back continued to make a case for being the Bucs' feature back next year by carrying the ball 34 times for 134 yards. He also caught a pass for 17 yards. ``Anytime you get over 30 carries, you're going to get into a rhythm and suddenly you're going to start to make some reads and make some moves and you don't even realize you're doing it,'' Jones said.

Jones made plenty of good reads and moves against the Texans. Eight of his 34 carries went for more than 4 yards. He wasn't the only member of the Bucs offense making big plays, though. Charles Lee had a catch that went for 72 yards, and Keenan McCardell and Jameel Cook had receptions that went for more than 14 yards. Brad Johnson, meanwhile, did not throw an interception, and he was not sacked. ``We would have liked to have scored a few more points, but I thought our offense played well,'' Gruden said. ``I was proud of our guys.''

Wherever he was Sunday, McKay probably felt the same way.