QB Shaun King is now the caretaker of a five-game Bucs winning streak
In five weeks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' season has gone from foundering to fascinating, with a fantastic four-week fight-to-the-finish looming.
Tampa Bay extended its impressive winning streak to five games on Monday night with a 24-17 downing of the visiting Minnesota Vikings, pushing the Vikes back into a tie for third place in the NFC Central Division with the 7-5 Green Bay Packers. The Buccaneers improved to 8-4 and remained in a tie for first with the Detroit Lions, who happen to be next Sunday's combatants in Raymond James Stadium.
The Buccaneers won their fifth in a row with a formula that was both familiar and new. Familiar was the site of a swarming and relentless Tampa Bay defense turning back repeated scoring opportunities. New was the man at the helm of the offense, rookie QB Shaun King, who became the first Buc rookie signal-caller to win his starting debut since Steve Young in 1985.
"I thought he played a really solid game for his first start," said Head Coach Tony Dungy on Sunday night. "He obviously had a few throws that he would like to have back, but I thought he managed the offense in a very efficient manner. It's not easy to come out on national TV and play well in your first NFL start. But we said all week that Shaun was a very poised young man and I think that came through loud and clear tonight."
King threw two touchdown passes against just one interception, and led the Bucs on the only two scoring drives they would need in the second half, as Tampa Bay turned a 14-10 halftime deficit into a 24-17 victory in front of a Raymond James Stadium-record crowd of 65,741. He passed just 19 times while FB Mike Alstott ground out the tough yards with 95 yards on 23 carries. Defensively, the Bucs were led by the outstanding performance of CB Donnie Abraham – two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, five passes defensed – as well as Brad Culpepper's two sacks and the constant pressure applied by DE Chidi Ahanotu.
For a full account of Monday's game, please visit the Minnesota game report in the 1999 Season section of Buccaneers.com.
When the Buccaneers moved into a tie for first place in the Central two weeks ago, Dungy spoke of a six game season between the fearsome foursome of the Bucs, Vikings, Lions and Packers. In what is clearly shaping up as the most interesting divisional race in the NFL, Tampa Bay and Detroit have taken the early lead in that race, and they will fight it out next Sunday for solitary possession of first.
"It starts all over tomorrow," said Alstott after his tiring Sunday effort. "I'll enjoy this for about an hour, then wake up and get ready for Detroit."
Like Minnesota, Detroit comes to Tampa Bay hoping for a season sweep of the Buccaneers. Such an occurrence would be doubly damaging to the Bucs' division title hopes, as it would drop them to 2-4 in the division with two to play. The Bucs also play host to Green Bay on December 26 and travel to Chicago for the season finale on January 2. Minnesota travels to Kansas City next week while the Bucs and Lions are locking horns, while Green Bay stays home to welcome the Carolina Panthers.
Only once have the Bucs had a better record than their current 8-4 mark after 12 games. In 1979, Tampa Bay held a 9-3 record heading into the final four weeks, but lost three in a row to set up a crucial season finale against Kansas City, which the Bucs won to take the NFC Central title. Two years ago, Dungy's Bucaneers were also 8-4 after 12 games, only to split the last four contests and take the first of three NFC Wild Card berths at 10-6.
Neither of those teams were able to control the events of the final month in a crowded NFC Central picture. Dungy hopes that Monday's effort is a sign that this squad will seize its opportunity. "We overcame some adverse things out there," said Dungy. "I really thought the character of this football team came through tonight before a national television audience."