Things got a bit crazy at Tampa Stadium Sunday.
There was wind and rain. Bad calls and big plays. Comebacks and mini-dramas galore. And for the Bucs, even a little of that rarest of elements: some good luck.
But if you think Tampa Bay's ever-so-homely 19-16 win over Cincinnati reached the height of zaniness, just check those NFC Central standings. What could be crazier than seeing the Bucs alone in first place?
Ugly or not, Tampa Bay's victory was its third straight, boosting the Bucs into sole possession of the division lead at 4-2, a half-game ahead of Green Bay, Minnesota and Chicago (all 3-2). Tampa Bay, which hosts the Vikings next week, hasn't been alone in first place after six games since 1979, when it started 5-1 on the way to its franchise-best 10-6 season.
"Hey, man, you don't know what you're getting nowadays over at the "Big Sombrero,'
" said Bucs center Tony Mayberry, who played more than three quarters with a right thumb broken in three places. "You come in and you don't know what you're going to get. You get a little sun, a little rain, you get crazy things happening on the field."
A season-low Tampa Stadium crowd of 41,732 saw the Bucs pull out their third consecutive last-minute win on the strength of Michael Husted's fourth field goal of the game _ a 53-yarder with 29 seconds remaining.
The kick, Husted's second game-winner in his three-year NFL career, capped his very active final five minutes. Husted tied the score at 16 with a 33-yard field goal with 3:38 remaining, and missed a potential game-tying 45-yard attempt with 4:45 to go, hitting the right upright of a goal post that had been blown crooked by a sudden fourth-quarter storm.
"It was a long kick, but it's something I've stayed up late at night dreaming about," said Husted, whose parents were visiting from Hampton, Va.
All told, Tampa Bay's still sputtering offense, ranked No.
28 in the league entering play and facing the NFL's worst defense, accounted for four Husted field goals in six attempts (misses from 47 and 45), and a 2-yard second-quarter Errict Rhett touchdown run. The highlights were provided by receiver Alvin Harper, who enjoyed his first 100-yard day as a Buc, grabbing a team-high six passes for 117 yards, and Rhett, who plowed for 91 tough yards in 29 carries.
But 10 of Tampa Bay's 13 possessions _ excluding the one that ended the game _ either started in or reached Cincinnati territory. A combination of penalties, sacks (seven) and poor execution (3-of-15 on third downs) doomed Tampa Bay's attempts to blow open the game.
"I don't think there's a guy in there that isn't happy to win, and as you write your ugly headlines, just don't misprint that four dash two when you talk about (the win) not being good enough for you, okay," Bucs coach Sam Wyche said sarcastically. "I can see that the win wasn't good enough."
But the Bucs were good enough to beat the Bengals (2-4), whose No. 4-ranked offense self-destructed with six turnovers (three interceptions, three fumbles), producing just three Doug Pelfrey field goals (34, 45 and 44 yards) and a 10-yard Jeff Blake-to-David Dunn fourth-quarter touchdown pass.
For the second straight week, backup quarterback Casey Weldon made a winning relief appearance. With Tampa Bay leading 13-9, Weldon replaced starter Trent Dilfer (12-of-26 for 185 yards) on the final play of the third quarter, completing 3 of 7 passes for 35 yards while directing the 28- and 21-yard drives that tied and won the game.
Dilfer threw no interceptions or touchdowns in his three-quarter stint. But he absorbed five of the Bengals' seven sacks, and later had a hard time accepting being yanked by Wyche for the second time in four games.
"He looked tired," said Wyche, who said the same thing after removing Dilfer from the Bears game three weeks ago. "He's still our quarterback. There's nothing happening here other than we do what we have to do to win. It doesn't matter what the reason is. I just thought it looked like he was just exhausted."
An irritated Dilfer, however, wasn't buying it.
"I don't agree with it, but that's the way he sees it," Dilfer said. "If that's what he wants to say, then that's his prerogative. "
For his part, Weldon didn't exactly ignite a quarterback controversy with his performance, but he has been at the wheel when Tampa Bay won in consecutive weeks.
"Of course I'd like to be the starter," he said. "But we're 4-2 right now. If I'm the backup and we go 16-2, that's fine with me. "
Tampa Bay's defense, which has been exceptional in the red zone this season, deserves most of the credit for the latest win.
Cornerbacks Martin Mayhew and Charles Dimry and strong safety John Lynch had second-half interceptions, and Mike McGruder and Dimry (two) added fumble recoveries. But as much as anything, two questionable late-game pass interference calls/non-calls, both of which went in Tampa Bay's favor, helped stop the Bengals.
On the first, back judge Jim Knight saw no pass interference on Mayhew's part while defending against Bengals receiver Darnay Scott with 4:23 remaining. On the play, which followed shortly after Husted's 45-yard field-goal miss, Mayhew appeared to hit Scott early. The ball deflected to Lynch, who made his first career interception at the Cincinnati 43.
On the next play, Weldon went deep to Harper, who drew an interference call on safety Bracey Walker, putting the ball at the Cincinnati 14. Four plays later, Husted tied the score with his 33-yard field goal.
"Are the Bucs due some breaks?" laughed Weldon. "About 10 years' worth. I hope we didn't use them all up today."