Almost got away
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 4 September 2000

For a season opener, the Bucs' victory over the New England Patriots Sunday was breathtaking. How long did you hold yours?

Tampa Bay began a new season using a very old formula. The Bucs offense failed to put the game away and its dominant defense was forced to ride to the rescue. Fullback Mike Alstott rushed for a pair of touchdowns and quarterback Shaun King and his acting ensemble faked a clock-killing spike before throwing an 8-yard touchdown to Reidel Anthony in the Bucs' 21-16 win.

Although the Bucs knocked New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe to the turf 19 times, they couldn't keep him down. After yielding a 39-yard touchdown pass to Terry Glenn with three minutes remaining, the Bucs had to withstand a furious comeback attempt by the Patriots and Bledsoe, who misfired on three potential game-winning pass attempts from the Tampa Bay 22 before time expired.

It was only the second opening day win under Tony Dungy for the Bucs, who claimed a share of the NFC Central lead with Minnesota and Detroit. "You feel good because it's a road win," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "You can watch it tonight when you get home. There ain't going to be but four road wins in the NFL. We're ahead of the game right now. We were up here, we're going to leave in first place and we weren't going to give it up."

The Bucs caught New England napping on a fake spike play to take a 14-10 halftime lead. King drove the Bucs 50 yards in four plays, most of it coming on a 33-yard catch and run by Jacquez Green. With the clock winding down inside 40 seconds and the Bucs out of timeouts, King frantically lined up his offense and appeared ready to spike the ball and kill the clock.

But the deception was on. As the rest of the offense stood relaxed, Anthony ran a fade route past a napping Patriots cornerback Kato Serwanga and King hit him perfectly for an 8-yard touchdown with 35 seconds left. "The first game, you're not really thinking about somebody doing that and we caught them off guard," Anthony said. "Luckily, it worked for us."

The Bucs sacked Bledsoe six times and knocked him down on 13 other occasions. Including running plays, Bledsoe was on the ground 28 of 66 plays. He was sacked on four of his first 10 passing attempts. "He's a stud, man," defensive end Tyoka Jackson said. "And the guy got up. He's going to be in the cold tub tomorrow, but the guy got up, kept slinging and almost brought them back. You've got to take your hat off to a guy like that. His crew never backed down. Their offensive line was overmatched, we think, but their skill guys never gave up."

Unable to pick up a first down on any of their three fourth- quarter possessions, the Bucs nearly blew it. Facing a blitz by cornerback Ronde Barber, Bledsoe just got off a pass to Glenn, who beat cornerback Donnie Abraham to cut the Bucs' lead to five with 3:01 left in the game. The Patriots inserted fleet quarterback Michael Bishop for a two- point conversion attempt, but his pitch to rookie Kevin Faulk was recovered by Sapp.

"We take Donnie for granted," safety John Lynch said. "I know when I'm back there at safety a lot, you say Donnie's over there and we'll just leave him alone. Nine out of 10 times, he's going to come out on top. He's an outstanding corner. Drew made a nice throw. We were in an all-out blitz and Terry made a nice catch."

A third-down sack of King by Willie McGinest and a 33-yard punt put the Patriots at the Tampa Bay 45 with 1:43 remaining. Bledsoe completed five passes to move New England to the Bucs 22 with 14 seconds left. But after spiking the ball to stop the clock, he fired incomplete three times, the last one under heavy pressure from Jackson.

Cornerback Brian Kelly might have saved the game when he prevented a long completion to Chris Calloway on second down. "A lot of defenses get scared in that situation," Jackson said. "But we built this team with a defense that will rush all day long. We've got seven guys to rotate and get it done. We knew our defensive backs would cover and give us three seconds. We felt fine. That's what we're comfortable with. We did it all last year. Look how many wins we had in the final two minutes. So this is nothing new for us."

After the game, Bledsoe said the physical pounding wasn't as bad as the emotional one. "I feel okay physically," Bledsoe said. "Emotionally, I feel kind of beat up. Those are the kind of games when you have the chance to win at the end and don't, it takes a big toll on me emotionally."

To a man, the Bucs were impressed - and somewhat surprised - by Bledsoe's toughness. "He hung in there," Sapp said. "We've played him before and my whole opinion of him was he has happy feet and he'll shrink to the pressure. That's why we wanted to get after him early and often. And we got after him and he was still standing in there. I was thinking he ain't going down today, we're going to have to get him."

While Bledsoe played with reckless abandon, King just played it cool. He completed 12 of 24 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown. But he did not turn the ball over and scrambled four times for 21 yards against the Patriots' sophisticated defense. "He got the New York City phone book thrown at him," quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen said. "We knew it was coming, but there's nothing you can prepare for. You don't know what section it's coming out of - A through Z.."

King made big plays when he had to. The fake spike was one. He also passed the Bucs out of trouble by hitting Green on a 34-yard pass during an all-out blitz in the first quarter. "They had us confused on third down early and he made a huge throw coming off the end zone to Quez," Christensen said. "That was probably the biggest throw of the game, I thought under a blitz."

There was much for the Bucs to be disappointed in Sunday. Ten of the Patriots' 17 points came courtesy of the Bucs special teams. The game began ominously when Karl Williams was stripped by Larry Whigham on the opening kickoff. Kato Serwanga recovered at the Tampa Bay 28 to set up a 30-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri. And the Patriots' first touchdown came on Troy Brown's 66-yard punt return with 7:25 remaining in the first half. Before his touchdown, Brown had a 39-yard punt return and Faulk added a 40-yard kickoff return.

Overall, Dungy was satisfied: "In the NFL, you can never be unhappy with a road win, and we certainly aren't. Some things we did a little uncharacteristically today hurt us, but we were still able to come out with a win."