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The alarm is set for Bucs vs. Vikings

And the clock is ticking on Tampa Bay's division-title hopes.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 9, 2000


MINNEAPOLIS -- Warren Sapp was late for a meeting two weeks ago and had to stand on the sideline for the first quarter at FedEx Field Oct. 1, knowing he would never get that quarter back.

But the defensive tackle still can get to the quarterback and the Bucs' sack leader would like to exact some punishment tonight on Vikings rookie Duante Culpepper.

"It was my crime. The only thing I had to do was just flip the switch and set the alarm," Sapp said of his tardiness to a team meeting the day before the Washington game.

Now the clock is ticking louder for the Bucs, who try to break a two-game losing streak against the unbeaten Vikings on Monday Night Football.

The enormity of the game is not lost on Tampa Bay. Coach Tony Dungy told his team a loss in the Metrodome tonight would mean it likely would not defend its NFC Central title.

But just as motivating is what a victory would mean to the Bucs: 3-0 in the division, with two of those victories on the road. They have six home games remaining.

"You can't have 10 must-win games throughout the course of the year," Dungy said. "I try to be realistic about it and say if we win, we'll be in fantastic shape. We'll be 3-0 in the division, we'll have two road division wins, we'll have played four of six on the road and we have six home games left.

"If we lose, we've got to somehow make up 31/2 games in 10 weeks, which will be tough to do. ... If we do put ourselves in that hole, we've got to dig our way out of it. So it's a big game."

Unfortunately for the Bucs, it is at the Metrodome against a 4-0 team that does not appear to have been slowed by Culpepper, who has won his first four NFL starts.

The Bucs have had trouble contending with the Vikings offense, particularly receiver Randy Moss, who has been responsible for Tampa Bay's slow starts in the Metrodome. The Bucs have been outscored 42-0 in the first half of their past two games at Minnesota.

"Up there we've had a lot of trouble letting them get out to an early lead, so that's what we've got to work on, keeping our poise and playing our game in the first half," Dungy said. "We've got to be ready to play off the bat, and we've got to come out and see if we can go three-and-out on defense and make them punt backed up early. Cover the first kickoff well and have them start at the 20 and not the 36."

Offensively, the Bucs need a rebound performance from quarterback Shaun King, who is coming off probably his shakiest game. A year ago, King made a splashy debut on Monday night against the Vikings, but that was at Raymond James Stadium and the defense staked him to a 7-0 lead on Donnie Abraham's interception return for a touchdown on the game's first series.

Tampa Bay's troubles on offense have caused the team to sound like the Bickering Bucs. Sapp and receiver Keyshawn Johnson suggested last week that the team needs to be more aggressive in its play-calling.

"I know this is a great defensive team, I know it is," Johnson said. "But we can't continue to put them on the field. Those guys are 300 pounds. Three-and-out is a killer. Yeah, if the defense was fresh, I bet you the defense doesn't let the Jets score."

Dungy regained some control over his team's focus, telling the players all the Monday morning quarterbacking did nothing to correct the mistakes they were making on Sundays.

The lasting images from the past two games for the Bucs is Johnson flipping off a CNN/Sports Illustrated camera and Sapp looking bewildered on the sideline during the first quarter of the Washington game.

"The way to be productive is to play well," Dungy said. "And when you aren't playing well, the best way to fix it is to play better. ... Until you play the next game, I guess you have to have something to fill time. "There's no way to keep 58 guys happy all the time. But professional teams can function and focus even when they're not entirely happy or when it's not perfect. Because it's not perfect, you're going to have injuries, problems, things that go wrong. But you've got to keep winning, and you will if you stay focused on winning."

What the Vikings have done behind Culpepper is a tribute to coach Denny Green, who had the foresight in 1999 to draft the former Central Florida quarterback in the first place when everybody was clamoring for him to take Florida defensive end Jevon Kearse.

"Everybody is going to panic, everybody is going to say the sky is falling and having four years of that experience up there is why I kind of laugh at the whole thing," Dungy said. "Because it's a long season and guys come in and play. When Hardy Nickerson gets hurt, Jamie Duncan has to play. Generally, he plays pretty well and you're all right. When Hardy Nickerson leaves, usually Jamie Duncan steps in and does all right. When Brad Culpepper leaves, usually Anthony McFarland steps in and does all right even though everybody is going to say the sky is falling."

Time is running out for the Bucs to remain in control of the NFC Central. As Yogi, or Sapp might say, it's getting late early.

"Everybody goes through tough stretches," Dungy said. "The really, really good teams win while they're going through them. And we were close to doing that twice so that makes us close to a really good team. But we're not quite there. Does that mean we can't be in two weeks? No."

Tonight's game

Bucs at Vikings

TIME: 9 p.m.

WHERE: Metrodome, Minneapolis

RECORDS: Bucs 3-2, Vikings 4-0

TV: Ch. 28

RADIO: WQYK-AM 1010, WQYK FM 99.5

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