It never was supposed to be this close, you know. It seemed like a bad idea to make the Tampa Bay Buccaneers cross two time zones to play the Denver Broncos in Mile High Stadium before they had even crossed the goal line this season.
What was the point? Or more precisely, where were the points supposed to come from?
But look at it this way. The NFL's lowest-scoring offense might have lost a game, but at least it finally found the end zone.
Denver running back Terrell Davis scored on a 3-yard touchdown run to cap a fourth-quarter comeback by the Broncos in a 27-23 win over the Bucs in a nationally televised game Sunday night. The loss dropped the Bucs to 0-3 heading into their three-game homestand at Houlihan's Stadium. The win kept the Broncos' undefeated start intact at 3-0.
The Bucs had a chance to pull off an improbable comeback, but it fell short.
On second and 10 from the Bucs' 45, quarterback Trent Dilfer was sacked and stripped of the football by defensive end Alfred Williams, who recovered the fumble with 1:37 left in the game.
"You still feel just as bad when you lose, but I think we're making strides offensively," said Dilfer, who completed 12 of 30 passes for 200 yards and a touchdown, but had an interception returned 69 yards for a score by defensive back Tyrone Braxton. "A quarterback can't be giving the other team seven points. It's a hard thing to overcome. Take that seven away and it's a victory. A quarterback can't do that.
"I know you're sick of hearing it and I'm sick of saying it, but tonight proves the offense is getting better."
The loss spoiled some big games for several Bucs.
Tailback Reggie Brooks, making his first start since being claimed off waivers from Washington in the preseason, gained 114 yards rushing on 15 carries and scored a TD.
It also was a breakout game for Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks, who recorded 19 tackles _ 18 of them solo _ and intercepted quarterback John Elway.
But none of it was enough to overcome the running of Davis, who dashed through gaping holes and rushed for 122 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown.
"We should have won the game," said Bucs nose tackle Brad Culpepper. "They drove on us. We shouldn't have let it happen. I don't feel good about it one bit."
The Bucs managed to keep Elway in check, intercepting him twice and allowing just 186 yards through the air. But all the real John Denver had to do was hand off as the Broncos shredded Tampa Bay's defense for 194 yards on the ground.
"It was disappointing. They basically in the second half came out and shoved it down our throats," said safety John Lynch. "They shouldn't have been able to. We were running eight-man fronts. We've gotta stop the run to do anything."
While the defense broke down, it was a watershed night for the offense. After a while, you had to pinch yourself to remember you were watching the lowest-scoring team in the NFL.
There was Reggie Brooks ripping of runs of 31 and 56 yards. There was wide receiver Alvin Harper producing catches of 37 and 40 yards _ the latter for a touchdown.
There was tight end Jackie Harris leading the Bucs in receiving with five catches for 96 yards and delivering crushing blocks.
There was Dilfer standing tall in the pocket and making critical third-down passes.
"We said all along we've got to be a good running team and that will force people into single coverage," said Bucs coach Tony Dungy. "When we get that, we've got guys who can take advantage of it _ Courtney Hawkins, Alvin Harper, Jackie Harris. I think Reggie gave us the lift tonight."
Elway didn't put his team ahead until his 17-yard TD pass to Anthony Miller with 3:18 left in the third quarter to leave the Bucs trailing 20-13.
But Dilfer and Reggie Brooks brought the Bucs right back. Making everyone forget about holdout tailback Errict Rhett, Brooks broke loose for a 56-yard run. Two plays later, Harper put a double move on Lionel Washington and caught a 40-yard pass from Dilfer for the game-tying touchdown. It was only the second touchdown pass for Dilfer in his past 404 attempts, but it tied the score at 20-20 with 1:57 left in the third quarter.
An interception by Derrick Brooks enabled the Bucs to take the lead on Michael Husted's 28-yard field goal with 11:43 left in the game.
But Elway wasn't through. The master of the fourth-quarter comeback directed the winning 80-yard TD drive in 14 plays that chewed 8 minutes, 11 seconds off the clock.
"Tampa Bay did a good job, I have to give them credit," said Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. "They're a good defensive football team, a lot better than their record would indicate. Offensively, they came out and proved they have some talent over there as well."
Dilfer did enough to refute his growing reputation as the league's laughingstock at quarterback in the first half.
But in doing so, he managed to get the Broncos on the scoreboard before Elway could.
After driving the Bucs to the Denver 33, Dilfer's second-down pass to tight end Dave Moore was intercepted by Braxton and returned 69 yards for a touchdown.
The touchdown run by Brooks ended a streak of 17 quarters without an offensive touchdown for the Bucs dating to the second preseason game. Look at it this way: It took Tampa Bay only 33 possessions this season to reach the end zone.
"You look at it overall and say we played a good game," said Derrick Brooks. "But I know the guys on this team are very hard critics of themselves, including me. I was flying around and in on a lot of tackles. But there probably were a lot of things I didn't do to help us win.
"We made some strides offensively, throwing the ball and running. This team just needs to stick together. We didn't do that last year and it got ugly."
What's the rush?
In the first two games of the season, the Bucs' yards per carry average was more than a yard below their opponents, with predictable results.
Game att.-yds avg. att.-yds avg. result
Green Bay 29-74 2.6 35-139 4.0 L, 34-3
Detroit 23-59 2.6 26-120 4.6 L, 21-6
Tony Dungy wanted a team without penalties, and in the first two games he got his wish, but in Game 3 he was not as fortunate:
Green Bay 3-20