A mess out West
As they somberly packed up their belongings in the locker room at Network Associates Coliseum on Sunday, a close inspection was needed to see what the Bucs would take from their game against the Raiders. Some Tampa Bay players clenched their fists. Others spoke through clenched teeth. But absolutely nobody left with a playoff spot clinched. One victory from the post-season, the Bucs were handed their worst defeat in 24 seasons.

Raiders running backs Napoleon Kaufman and Tyrone Wheatley combined to rush for 233 yards and four touchdowns, embarrassing the league's No. 2-ranked defense to wallop the Bucs 45- 0. The Raiders beat Tampa Bay so soundly that you were convinced they might have done it wearing two eye patches. Oakland forced three turnovers and made theretofore unflappable rookie quarterback Shaun King come unglued.

After starting his NFL career 2-0, King was intercepted, lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown and sacked four times. He didn't get any help from the Bucs' suddenly invisible rushing attack that was held to 34 yards, its lowest total in at least three years. It was the first loss of any kind in 25 months for King, who guided Tulane to an undefeated season a year ago. The record-setting defeat, which eclipsed the Bucs' 42-0 loss at Pittsburgh in 1976, ended a six-game winning streak and dropped their record to 9-5.

But Tampa Bay kept its one-game lead in the NFC Central over Detroit (8-6), thanks to the Lions' 28-10 loss at Chicago. "I just told them this is what happens when you're not really on it in the National Football League. Every team is capable of doing this to you if you don't play your game," Tony Dungy said. "You don't like to not play your best, especially when so much is on the line. But it's one game in 16 and we've got to win next week to keep ourselves in first place. That is the regret. We had the table laid out for us, and we didn't get the job done. Not only did we not get the job done, we played probably our worst game of the year. And that's disappointing, given the circumstances."

The Bucs still can clinch a playoff spot with a win Sunday over Green Bay at Raymond James Stadium. A victory over the Packers and a victory Jan. 2 at Chicago would give Tampa Bay its first division title since 1981 and a first-round bye. "We can't afford to let this affect our momentum," receiver Bert Emanuel said. "We've got to go back home, we've got a big game. I think there's still momentum. This is a bump in the road. We can't let this turn into a sink hole."

King, 22, had no magic against the Raiders, who held the Bucs to a season-low 137 yards. Meanwhile, Kaufman had 122 yards rushing and two scores - including a 75-yard TD run. Wheatley added 111 yards and a pair of touchdowns, making the Raiders the first team with two backs to eclipse the century mark against the Bucs since Dungy arrived in 1996. "They kept nickel-and-diming us down the field, then we gave up the run gaps and they exploited us and ran the ball," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "I'm going to kick myself because mine was straight up the middle and that's usually the strength of our defense inside. Hey, chalk it up."

Inexplicably, the Bucs put themselves in a hole early. As they had last week against Detroit, the Bucs fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter. The Raiders took the opening kickoff and drove 84 yards for a touchdown. Quarterback Rich Gannon completed three passes for 50 yards, the last one a 20-yard crossing route to Tim Brown for the touchdown. Joe Nedney's 26-yard field goal ended a seven-minute drive on the Raiders' second possession.

The slow start is nothing new for the Bucs. They have allowed 89 points in the first quarter this season. "It's disappointing we don't come out with the fire we need," Dungy said. "We've been fortunate to make adjustments. But you get against good teams at their place, you can't give them that type of momentum. "I don't know how to explain that. Maybe it's a maturity thing. Maybe it's not enough guys realizing how tough it is to go on the road and win. But we've played six pretty good games in a row and we had a lot riding on this one. Somehow, we've got to regroup. I think we will, and I don't think anyone in our locker room is ready to throw in the towel."

Offensively, the Bucs and King looked dazed and confused. Tampa Bay ran only six plays in the first quarter to the Raiders' 22. By the end of the first half, it had been outgained 199 yards to 89 and 12 first downs to three. The Bucs would have been thrilled to go to the locker room trailing by two scores and actually had a chance to cut into the deficit before halftime. But on first down from the Tampa Bay 48, fullback Mike Alstott lost his sixth fumble of the season when he was stripped by Russell Maryland. Cornerback Charles Woodson scooped it up and returned it 24 yards.

On the next play, Wheatley burst through a hole off the right side and went virtually untouched for a 30-yard touchdown - the second-longest rushing play yielded by the Bucs' defense to date. Any hopes of a second half comeback melted away instantly. On the third play from scrimmage, King had the football slip out of his hands attempting to throw a pass and linebacker Lance Johnstone returned it 13 yards for a touchdown and a 24-0 lead.

It was the second straight week King fumbled trying to pass. "I pumped, I came back and the ball just slipped out of my hands," King said. "I don't know. I'll work on keeping two hands on the ball. That's something that generally hasn't been a problem for me. But since it has, I'll work this week on keeping two hands on the ball at all times."

The defeat was reminiscent of the Bucs' 31-0 loss to the Jets in Week 15 of the '97 season. They followed that sobering defeat with a 31-15 victory over Chicago the next week in Tampa. "It was already mentioned on the sideline that this was exactly like the Jets and we reacted real well to that," safety John Lynch said. "So we're going to have to take the same approach." "It's hard to explain. It's been a long time since we've given up these kinds of points, but we did and that's where we are. "But we won six in a row and we didn't disintegrate overnight. We're going to bounce back, and I have a lot of confidence in this team.

Rick Stroud , The St.Petersburg Times 1999