By HIBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 25, 2000
TAMPA -- Even with old-style, low-key Tampa Bay offense, they would've beaten the Jets. Mundane efficiency would've handled it. Even with Shaun King muddling through his weakest game as an NFL quarterback. Even with Keyshawn Johnson being made to look like a yapping, ineffective fool.
It was theirs.
But, in the clock-killing stretch, when the Bucs most craved dependability, the A-Train jumped the track, like he has done too many times before. Mike Alstott's fumble would allow New York a mighty guffaw.
Who didn't expect, with an 11-point Bucs lead at the two-minute warning, they surely would survive in a most predictable way, squashing any late threats with man-eating defense. It's their habit. Their reputation.
This time, instead of swallowing the Jets, the Bucs gagged. Fort Dungy crumbled, including Coach Tony's beloved defense. Derrick Brooks botched a tackle "that I make 99 times in 100," allowing Curtis Martin to flee for a touchdown.
It was bad, getting worse.
Given life, the Jets found magic. Vinny Testaverde, benched for a fourth-quarter moment, discovered 11th-hour joy in Tampa, a town where he had so often been bedeviled. New York dug heroically deep, finding all the guts, trickery and concluding excellence the Jets needed to put the Bucs in a Sunday casket.
Go get 'em, Houdini.
On the clincher, Martin took a pitchout from Vinny, a play New York had used repeatedly. But this time, when it counted most, Curtis slammed on the brakes, cocking his arm and lofting a pass to Wayne Chrebet in the end zone. The Bucs were flat-footed and dumbfounded.
For the Jets, it was a dream finish. Picking the Bucs' pocket. Suckering one of pro football's toughest, proudest defenses. In the end, going to Wayne the Flashlight for shining brilliance.
It was somehow poetic, if excruciating for Tampa Bay. As though the Jets had shoved that victorious football down Keyshawn's hyperactive, egomaniacal, nonsubstantiated throat.
"I guess we're still lacking that killer instinct," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "We weren't fundamentally sound. We fumbled it away. Then our defense didn't do what it's supposed to do."
Chidi Ahanotu was distraught. "Our defense wasn't itself," the 30-year-old lineman said. "We malfunctioned all over, not in just one spot. Even then, we should've put it away in the closing minutes."
John Lynch would've felt less than fulfilled even if Tampa Bay had held on.
"We were so below our standards," the All-Pro safety said. "I would've been disappointed if we'd won 17-14; but not nearly as bummed out as I am about blowing it totally."
Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, uncharacteristically, was put into a posture of explaining excessive breakdowns by his celebrated soldiers, who before Sunday had put 2000 strangleholds on New England, Chicago and Detroit.
"Tackles were missed by players who aren't prone to such things," he said. "Then there was the tailback pass (by Martin), which seemed to stay in the air forever. I kept begging for (safety) Damien (Robinson) to get there, but it was executed too well."
Kiffin applauded the Jets for their courage, using the trick play called by New York offensive coordinator Dan Henning.
"It would've been a lower-risk tactic to not try a Martin pass, something that could've backfired," Kiffin said. "If the throw, by a guy who isn't used to passing the ball, gets batted around and intercepted, the Jets don't even get a field-goal shot to send it into overtime."
A media bloke with a microphone asked Brooks about next weekend's challenge against the Washington Redskins. Derrick rolled his eyes.
"I don't have time to think about the Redskins," he said. "I'm too p----- about this one. Not only losing, but the way we did it.
"We dominate the Jets defensively until the last five minutes. My team scores 17 points, which was plenty enough to win. I missed that tackle on Martin. Can't believe it. I am so p-----.
"Then we get beat by a halfback pass, a chance New York should've never had. We've got to learn from this. We must realize you're never too far ahead. This hurts so deeply, but I expect it to motivate us in positive ways as we get ready for the next one."
Thinking Redskins, kind of.
Ahanotu, the Cal-Berkeley gent with the funky hairdo and a flourishing new restaurant in Tampa, was most succinct in capsulizing Sunday's fate.
"When we should've wrapped it up," the 285-pound athlete said, "we stunk it up."