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Offense makes this a classic

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000


TAMPA -- Sweep away the Florida chads. We've got a bigger, sweeter story. In 25 seasons of Bucs football, through a lot of ugly games and far too few pretties, it had never happened this way.

Tampa Bay's battered, belittled offense, so historic for not delivering greatness, bailed out a famous, renowned Bucs defense on a Monday night never to be forgotten.

Not around here, for sure.

Not anywhere, I would think.

It was a game for the NFL ages. A showcase. Fabulous theater. Miraculous ending. Best three hours with the Bucs playing that I've ever seen. Let it snow, freeze and nag in Green Bay, because Sunday against the Packers doesn't matter so much now.

I'm rubbing my eyes. We saw Bucs offense deliver in a close-to-unbelievable way, saving some noted Tampa Bay defensive mates who had just been scalded by a 72-yard touchdown pass from Kurt Warner to Torry Holt.

Just like 11 months ago, when an 11th-hour Warner pass to Ricky Proehl broke Bucs hearts and sent the Rams onward to Super Bowl XXXIV glory, it appeared a late rocket by No. 13 had again deflated Tampa Bay.

In severe need of a heroic defensive play to save a 31-28 win, Bucs defenders were torched by Warner-Holt, the wide receiver cracking past cornerback Ronde Barber and being uncatchable. St. Louis went up 35-31. It seemed over. More tears for Tampa Bay.

If it'd stayed that way, you would now be reading how the defensive Bucs, with four Pro Bowl guys and a massive reputation, had botched the critical chance against the Rams. Again.

Massive challenge but a near miss.

Not so fast, you St. Louisans.

Marshall Faulk, maybe the NFL's best player, scored four touchdowns against Tampa Bay's defense. Something had to give as the world's finest offense cracked helmets and matched steps with a highly decorated defense. Tampa Bay gave. Gave a lot. Gave too much, it seemed. I kept feeling it was a load too leaden for such a kicked-around offense to overcome.

How wrong we can be.

Defensive heroes became cheerleaders. Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Derrick Brooks and Donnie Abraham had missed their season-saving opportunity. They strained, hoping for something wondrous from offensive pals whose reputation has been less than shiny.

Hello, playoffs.

Who knows how far these Bucs can go? It's a heavy climb to equal last season, when they made it to St. Louis, to the NFC Championship Game, where the splendid Tampa Bay defense did fabulous work, only to be victimized by Proehl's snag in an 11-6 fight.

But now there is energized blood in Bucs veins. They can win with offense. They can beat the Super Bowl champs with offense. They can overcome a late Warner bob.

Okay, hold up your hand if you thought Shaun King would get Tampa Bay to the end zone for a 38-35 win, especially when it became third and forever, and then then the quite-criticized quarterback from Tulane and the astonishing 180-pound runner, Warrick Dunn, were asked to pull off near-magical plays.

Al Michaels, Dan Fouts and Dennis Miller were delirious, telling America about an extraordinary four quarters. Chris Berman was there for ESPN. So were reporters from many of the country's most respected newspapers. What a story, no matter how experienced the observing eyes.

For once, the offensive platoon could walk as proudly as all those Hawaii-bound defensive strongboys. King was better than Sapp. Keyshawn Johnson superior to Brooks. Dunn a step ahead of Lynch.

St. Louis popped the Bucs defense for 388 yards, which is not that hard to imagine given the zip and boom of Rams offense. But the amazing number, other than the 38 points Tampa Bay scored to win, was a King-Dunn-Johnson offense that outgained the Super Bowl aces with 446 yards. There will be no recount.

You can bet the air at Bucs practices will be altered in coming days. Respect can't be faked. It must be earned. Tampa Bay defenders wondered if their offensive sidekicks were even measuring up, doing their part.

Monday night was it. Who can say if it was an aberration or a powerful birth for a Bucs offense that will be widely respected and even feared? We'll find out in a couple of weeks, when playoffs are rolling.

It was a sports masterpiece.

Not just rare ... unique.

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