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Still not ready for prime time

Just in case Tampa Bay had the football world fooled, with a surprise 3-1 record to begin the season, the Bucs dedicated a Sunday of open-armed Tampa Stadium opportunity to proving they still are not a quality team.

They weren't ready to be 4-1. They weren't ready to remain tied with the Minnesota Vikings atop the NFC Central Division. They weren't ready _ before a hopeful crowd of 56,585 _ to win back a lot of Tampa Bay hearts lost in the Bucs' hideous seasons of 1983-91.

They weren't ready for Indianapolis, an infamous NFL crawler that had won just twice in 20 games. They weren't ready for Colts quarterback Jeff George, who, despite a recent thumb injury and a pitiful Sunday first half, arose to pass Indy to a 24-14 win.

They just weren't ready.

Tampa Bay had hammerlock control of the first half, possessing the football for 23{ minutes to the Colts' 6{. It should've been a 20-point Bucs runaway. The Bucs had a 3-to-1 edge in yardage and a 5-to-1 bulge in first downs.

It should've been over early.

But the Bucs allowed Indianapolis to hang close at 14-7, thanks in major part to an on-target Vinny Testaverde pass careening off the not-so-trusty mitts of rookie tight end Tyji Armstrong and turning into a Colts interception with a 46-yard runback to the Tampa Bay 1-yard line.

Tampa Bay wasn't ready to put away the Colts, a team the Bucs blistered 17-3 on one of their three 1991 victories. Tampa Bay wasn't ready to go brimming with confidence into its bye week and embracing the joy of a 4-1 record until at least a week from Sunday when the Bucs play in Chicago.

They're not yet good enough.

Then came halftime, and _ again _ a villain slipped into the locker room and spiked the Bucs' keg of Gatorade with some energy-sapping, mind-altering juice. I mean, what other explanation can there be for a major-league pro football team that returns to a roaring arena in such a collective coma?

Zombies on parade . . .

Bucs receivers began to resemble farm kids grappling to grasp greased pigs. Reggie Cobb muffed a Testaverde throw in wide-open territory over the middle. Sanford Jennings dropped one. So did the usually flawless Lawrence Dawsey, and Willie Drewrey butterfingered a pair.

Then, a flurry of hope

Indianapolis had bounded to a 17-14 lead, but the Bucs began to quiver back to life. They drove admirably from the Tampa Bay 2-yard line on Testaverde passes to Anthony McDowell and Ron Hall, plus a smacking 11-yard run by Cobb. Tampa Stadium was screaming again, thinking, "This could be it."

It wasn't.

As was characteristic of the Bucs' second half, the hopeful Tampa Stadium throats soon went silent. Tampa Bay had earned a second and 2 at its 39. But then, one of those quick snaps Sam Wyche likes to try would blow up on the Bucs' coach. James Brooks, a 12th-year NFL running back signed by Tampa Bay late last week, was jammed a yard shy of a first down.

Wyche chose to go to the well again. On third down, the Bucs gave Brooks another try. Wyche has enormous faith in the smallish Brooks, who played so brilliantly for Cincinnati when Wyche was coaching the Bengals in the 1980s. Brooks wasn't brilliant this time. He fumbled it away, and Indy would convert the chance into a crushing touchdown.

Tampa Bay had something to prove.

Just so nobody would get the bogus idea that the bad, bad, bad Bucs of autumns past suddenly had evolved into NFL contenders, the men in the orange britches spent a majority of Sunday's second half looking like a flashback to the dreadful 3-13 Tampa Bay team of a year ago.

It is that the Bucs must chew on for the next 13 days, until a hostile chance for redemption comes in Chicago against the cranky Bears (2-3), who Sunday blew a 20-point lead in Minnesota to lose 21-20 against the Vikings.

It could've been different. It would've been different if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had prepared mentally and then physically executed against the Indianapolis Colts who _ while not as lousy as the football world might think _ are not exactly Super Bowl threats.