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Putting the past behind them

The good news? The Bucs are done with Dallas. But the Bucs know better. Putting last week's last-minute loss to the Cowboys behind them won't be as easy as turning a page.

All losses are definitely not created equal.

Tampa Bay (4-3) has already paid a price for the Dallas defeat, but unknown is whether that cost will rise in the weeks to come. Ultimately, the severity of the bottom line could depend on the Bucs' response to the 17-13 loss to Dallas.

"I think it really deals with how you handle certain games," said Bucs offensive right tackle Rob Taylor. "For instance, last week could be a turning point if we don't handle it right. I think you've got guys on this team who have the character to rise above it and leave it behind. If we can't, then we're going to be looking back at this last week and saying it was the turning point of 1990."

The Bucs have been here before. After five weeks of the 1989 season, Tampa Bay was 3-2, a game out of first in the NFC Central and fresh off a big 42-35 upset of Chicago. Then came Detroit. At home against the winless Lions, the Bucs played just well enough to lose, falling 17-16 on Rodney Peete's

fourth-down touchdown dash with 23 seconds remaining. It started a five-game losing streak and marked the death of early season Buc hopes.

The Detroit-Dallas analogies aside, the Bucs' date at San Diego (2-5) on Sunday looms large. Quicker than most thought possible just a few short weeks ago, the Bucs are approaching 1990's crossroads.

"Yeah, it's a huge game because last year when we lost to Detroit, a game we should've won, we went into a tailspin because of it," Bucs linebacker Ervin Randle said. "When you play teams you're supposed to beat and you don't win, there's always a lot of letdown and frustration.

"What has to happen now is the older players have to lead. That's when a lot of leadership is needed. It's easy for everybody to lead when things are going well. But when you have a loss that no one can explain, it's left up to the older guys to show leadership."

At 4-3 overall and 4-0 in the NFC Central, the Bucs are in no mood to panic. Still, two losses in three weeks to the Cowboys have turned up the pressure a notch or two. Steadying themselves with a win against the Chargers would shelve the slippery slope talk, and put the Bucs halfway home to a 10-6 record.

"It's a big week and a big game," Taylor said. "The pressure is a little greater now, especially since we've put it on ourselves with some things that have happened. We need to win this week. I think it's crucial. But I think we will bounce back."

Backup quarterback Chris Chandler gets a start this week in place of the injured Vinny Testaverde. Acquired this preseason from Indianapolis, Chandler doesn't attach much meaning to recent Bucs history.

"You've got to realize how long a season is," Chandler said. "When I was with the Colts, my rookie year we got off to a 1-5 start. At that point in time, you think it's probably over. But we ended up going 8-2 our last 10 games of the season and would've made the playoffs had Houston beaten Cleveland that year.

"Anything can happen. We can lose our next three games and still go to the playoffs. Not that we're going to (lose). But it's a long season. If you dwell on one loss, you might lose some more because of it."

The Bucs' biggest challenge is the schedule ahead _ four out of five weeks on the road. After San Diego, Tampa Bay returns home to face the Bears, then packs up for a three-week trip to New Orleans, San Francisco and Milwaukee (the Green Bay game).

The grind, says Chandler, might be just the cure for what ails them.

"I think we realize we have a fairly difficult stretch coming up, but I think we can gain something from that," he said. "Kind of like, we're going to be on the road and everyone's to going be against us. As a team we can feel like we've really got to pull together and play really well. We can use that to our advantage. Get that us-against-the-world feeling."

Notes: The Bucs activated tight end Ed Thomas from the practice squad Friday, waiving receiver Chris Ford to make room. Thomas, 6 feet 3, 235 pounds, was originally with Tampa Bay for part of the preseason, before being waived in August. He was re-signed as a practice-squad player Oct. 1. A converted linebacker, Thomas attended the University of Houston.

The father of offensive lineman John Bruhin died Friday. It was not known late Friday if Bruhin planned to accompany the team to San Diego.

Left tackle Paul Gruber will be featured on This is the NFL, to be shown at 2 a.m Sunday on Ch. 13.

The Bucs' injury list: Vinny Testaverde (toe) is questionable; Winston Moss (foot), Reggie Cobb (knee) and Ray Seals (groin) are probable.

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