Down and In
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 15 December 1997

It took them 15 seasons to return to the playoffs, and when the Bucs learned they clinched a wild-card spot Sunday, they were sky high. Sometime around 8 p.m., on a charter plane headed for Tampa International Airport, they were informed post-season plans were no longer up in the air. But there were no corks popping. Not so much as a Gatorade bath. What should have been an in-flight celebration amounted to peanuts and was washed down with a complimentary beverage. "You're happy in the sense that, yeah, we made the playoffs," Hardy Nickerson said. "But at the same time, you can't be happy about this loss. You can't be happy about the way we played. If it were 10-7, overtime, and they beat us with a field goal, tough loss. But personally, I don't like getting blown out. It's sickening."

Defensive back Otis Smith returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the first half and Leon Johnson opened the second half with a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to rout the Bucs 31-0 and hand them their worst defeat in two seasons. But even failing to cross the goal line for the second straight game, Tampa Bay reached one of its goals.

The Giants' 30-10 victory over Washington Saturday and the Green Bay Packers' 31-10 victory at Carolina Sunday enabled the Bucs to clinch their first playoff spot since 1982. Tampa Bay also got some help from the Detroit Lions' 14-13 win at Minnesota. The Bucs could be the first wild-card entry and host a first-round game if they beat Chicago in the regular-season finale at Houlihan's Stadium.

Certainly, the Bucs didn't feel like celebrating their worst defeat since Tony Dungy's NFL coaching debut in the 1996 season opener against Green Bay. "It's not necessarily the way you want to do it, but you'll take it and ride it all the way into the playoffs and hopefully to the Super Bowl," defensive end Chidi Ahanotu said. "It's a weird feeling if you get in like that, but we'll take it."

All the Bucs needed was a win over the Jets to secure the home field for the first wild-card game. The Bucs completed just three passes in 22 attempts against the Jets and produced a season-low 111 total yards. Rookie Warrick Dunn accounted for 110 (88 rushing, 22 receiving). Tampa Bay was 0-for-13 on third downs. "That's the disappointing thing," Tony Dungy said. "We're right on the doorstep and we've got a chance to control our own destiny with a win, and to not even be close in the game is difficult."

The debate that raged all week was whether to play an injured Trent Dilfer or a healthy Steve Walsh. Dilfer could not practice because of a sprained ankle suffered last week against Green Bay. He participated in a few seven-on-seven drills Friday, though it hardly gave anyone confidence he would be well enough to start against the Jets.

But when he awoke Sunday and went to Giants Stadium to test his ankle, he felt good enough in warmups to try it. "On Friday I thought I was a lot closer and there was a chance, which is what I was looking for," Dilfer said. "It really improved yesterday and this morning when I woke up, as soon as I got out of bed, I knew I could play."

Any lift that news about Dilfer might have given the team was tempered by the fact that fullback Mike Alstott would not play. A deep thigh bruise labored his running in warmups. Dilfer may have been willing, but he wasn't ready. Throwing into at times a wind that gusted 25 mph, he completed just 2 for 15 attempts for 38 yards and was intercepted twice by Smith.

Of course, he didn't get much help from his wide receivers. There were at least six dropped passes. Rookie Reidel Anthony failed to have a reception for the third straight week, and Bucs receivers were beaten by the Jets' bump-and-run man coverage. In fact, Dilfer completed as many passes to Smith as to his teammates.

The first interception was not entirely Dilfer's fault. It bounced off Horace Copeland's hands and directly to Smith, who returned it 45 yards for a touchdown. Copeland fumbled to start games against New England and Chicago. This was his first game back after missing the two weeks with an ankle sprain, and he picked up where he left off. Smith's second INT came when Dilfer tried to hit Anthony on a deep out pattern and threw it a little late, allowing the Jets defensive back a 51-yard return.

Dilfer said his ankle injury was not responsible for his poor performance. "I really don't think so. I would say so if I thought it did," he said. He also took the blame for a fumbled handoff. With the Bucs trailing 17-0, on third and 1 at the Jets' 14-yard line, he lost the ball bumping into fullback Patrick Hape, who was lead blocking on a run intended for Errict Rhett.

When the Bucs offense wasn't self-destructing, special teams did. Johnson's kickoff return to start the second half was the longest against the Bucs and the first allowed by Tampa Bay in five years. It also made it 24-0, deflating any chance of the Bucs coming back. The Bucs also had a punt blocked, allowed 141 return yards and negated several of their returns with penalties. "This is a good team and today is not really what we're about," Bucs receiver Robb Thomas said.

The defense did some nice things in the first half. Anthony Parker intercepted Neil O'Donnell; after a Sean Landeta punt was blocked, the defense stuffed the Jets on fourth and 1 from the Tampa Bay 10-yard line. But it wasn't enough. "It wasn't even tough. They just plain killed us," Bucs nose tackle Brad Culpepper said. "Nothing would go right; it was basically a nightmare from the first quarter on. You've got to sit back in retrospect. Look at the way they played last week (in a 22-14 loss to Indianapolis) and they were terrible. They were awful. And they responded this week with an excellent game. We've got to take a page out of their book and do the same thing against Chicago."

Beating the Jets didn't seem that daunting a task before Sunday. They had lost both starting offensive tackles and had allowed eight sacks a week earlier. "That's a team decimated by injuries right now," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "We needed to take it to them. "I don't think the blame can go to any one unit. As a team, we played awful football. We s------ today. They took it to us."

The timing couldn't have been worse. Three days earlier, the Bucs learned they'd placed more players in the Pro Bowl than any team in the NFL. It may be time to ask for a recount. "We sure didn't play like we had seven Pro Bowlers today," Lynch said. "You would've thought that would've given us more confidence and momentum. I thought everybody felt that set up real well for us this week. But we laid an egg."

Even Jets coach Bill Parcells sensed maybe the Bucs were living a little bit off their highlights. "They've got seven guys in the Pro Bowl," Parcells said. "Sometimes, young teams like that believe a little bit about the things that are written about them before they should. I'm not saying that's what happened to them. I'm just saying when you have young teams, occasionally they have a hard time keeping things in perspective."

You heard it all year long from Dungy: There's perspective, and there's reality. The perspective is the Bucs finally turned it around and made the playoffs for the first time in 15 seasons. The reality is they're not playing very good football when it matters most.

"I don't think it's ever a good day when you don't win, especially when we lose like this," Dungy said. "But our goal is to get into the playoffs and right now our goal is to win next week. And if we do that, we've got 10 wins and that's going to be a pretty good year. But we need to get some momentum and start playing better."