Day of Destiny
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 17 January 2000

Sometimes, the road you have to travel in the playoffs is not always paved. This is the case with the Buccaneers, whose journey is often painful to watch. Tampa Bay's 14-13 come-from-behind NFC Divisional playoff win over the Washington Redskins Saturday was another walk on broken glass, barefoot, through the briar patch and over hot coals.

But the improbable trip left the Bucs just one step from the Super Bowl. Shaun King became the first rookie quarterback to win a playoff game in 23 seasons, overcoming a slow start and a 13- point deficit to rally the Bucs to a pair of second-half touchdowns. Both scores came courtesy of the Bucs swarming defense, which forced two turnovers, kept the NFL's No. 2 offense out of the end zone and held the Redskins to 26 total yards in the second half.

King, who went 15-of-32 passing for 157 yards, made a blind jump-pass under pressure to tight end John Davis for a 1-yard touchdown with 7:29 left in the fourth quarter. The Redskins, who had never lost in 20 playoff games when leading after three quarters, botched a game- winning, 52-yard field goal attempt by Brett Conway when quarterback Brad Johnson couldn't handle a bounced snap from center Dan Turk with 1:08 remaining. "I think it was the Philadelphia game that we talked about ugly wins and that we wouldn't mind winning ugly all the way to the Super Bowl," said Tony Dungy. "It certainly wasn't artistic, it wasn't pretty, but it was certainly one of the best wins I've been involved with. "We'll find out tomorrow who we play, but we'll be closer than about 29 other teams, so we'll take it."

For only the second time in club history, the Bucs will play in the NFC Championship Game, against either St. Louis or Minnesota. The Rams and Vikings play at 12:35 today in the other NFC Divisional playoff game. If the Rams win, the Bucs will travel to the Trans World Dome in St. Louis for Sunday's title game. If the Minnesota prevails, the Vikings will come to Raymond James Stadium. "If we have the Vikings and we're playing here, man, I'll be sleeping easy," said defensive end Chidi Ahanotu. "They've got a good team. But we know those guys. I would love to see them here. This place will be out of control."

The Bucs trailed 13-0 after the Redskins' Brian Mitchell returned the second-half kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, setting an NFL playoff record. It was the first kickoff return for a score all season against the Bucs. "We tried a little different variation on our coverage and missed our lanes a little bit," said Dungy. "We definitely didn't want him to get to our kicker. That's the first time Martin has had to make a tackle all year and it didn't come at the right time."

But one play seemed to swing the momentum in the Bucs' favor and re-energize the crowd. With 5:06 left in the third quarter, safety John Lynch intercepted a pass intended for Albert Connell at the Tampa Bay 27. King completed passes of 16 yards to Dunn and 17 yards to Dave Moore for first downs. But the big play came when Redskins safety Leomont Evans was flagged for pass interference on Dunn, resulting in a 31-yard penalty.

Alstott, who was largely ineffective with just 24 yards rushing on 15 carries, smelled blood from there. After turning a short pass into a 9-yard gain, he made a zig-zagging, 2-yard touchdown run that seemed improbable for a 260-pound fullback. Taking a handoff from King, he rumbled to his right and spun out of tackles by Derek Smith and Marco Coleman. After reversing field, he tried the middle, but had to tear away from James Francis. Alstott then took off to his left, eluding the arm tackle of defensive end Ndukwe Kalu on his way to the end zone. "That's what I'm trying to do," said Alstott. "We've got to get in the end zone. I tried to bounce it outside to the right and tried to come back inside. I just got hit a couple times and kept my feet pumping."

Just as they have all season, it was the defense that made the big play to win the game. Johnson, who was 8-of-17 for 39 yards passing with an interception in the second half, was sacked and stripped of the ball by defensive end Steve White. Tackle Warren Sapp, who battled through a knee sprain in the second half, pounced on the ball at the Washington 32.

The Bucs game-winning touchdown was part luck and pluck. King was sacked twice on the first three plays, losing a fumble when he was thrown to the ground by Shawn Barber. An alert Warrick Dunn scooped it up and ran 13 yards for a first down at the 17-yard line. "At that point, we could kind of feel that magic in the air," said cornerback Donnie Abraham. "When that happened, we just knew we were back in it."

But it was King's touchdown pass that will be one of the memorable plays in Bucs lore. On third-and-goal from the 1, King executed his play-action run fake to Alstott before bootlegging to his right. Kalu was in King's face and had both arms around the waist of the rookie when he made an almost blind jump pass to Davis in the end zone. "Houdini," guard Frank Middleton called King. "We've got the second coming of Houdini. It was one of those plays where you look up and say, "How did he ever get that off?' "

King said he didn't realize Kalu was there until it was almost too late. "I really didn't see the end until I turned around and he was there," said King. "(Davis) beat his guy, so I just kind of lofted it up and he made a nice catch."

As much as any game this season, King was indecisive and looked like a rookie in the first half, going 4-of-14 for 45 yards. But he relaxed a bit after halftime and completed 11-of-18 for 112 yards and the touchdown. He's the first rookie to win a playoff game since the Rams Pat Haden in '76. Dungy said he never lost faith in his rookie quarterback and was rewarded for his patience."No matter how poorly things go," Dungy said, "it seems like when you need the clutch big play, the throw to win the game, he makes it."

The Redskins had a chance to end the Bucs' fairy-tale season on a 52-yard field goal attempt by Conway, who already connected from 28 and 48 yards. But Turk, a former Buc during the '80s, dribbled the snap to the holder, Johnson, who couldn't handle it cleanly. He was chased by Floyd Young, and his desperation pass attempt fell incomplete. "We just worked on it yesterday," said Young. "If it was a bad snap and it was a 'fire' call, I had the holder. I kind of hesitated . . . but once I heard 'fire,' I took off and all I knew was to go straight for him. It sealed the game for us."