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ESCAPE FROM INDIANAPOLIS

Trent Dilfer got flame-breathing mad. Screaming at erring Tampa Bay compatriots. Chewing on some pewter tails. "I was upset," he said. "I let them know."

One flaw was obvious. When the quarterback was forced into scrambles, his receivers were too slow to adjust and retreat in search of openings in the coverage.

When it counted most, Dilfer would reach out with his bare quarterbacking hands and take over what was a season-saving game for the Buccaneers against winless Indianapolis.

A Californian loaded with ambitious grit, the 25-year-old Dilfer has been blamed for every modern disaster but El Nino. Trent has made many mistakes, but he has been blamed for far more. After three consecutive losses, his Bucs were skidding onward against the Calamity Colts.

Still, it was an 0-8 enemy.

Just as the Pewter Pirates appeared to be ingesting deadly carbon monoxide, Indy began finding ways to do the predictable. Gagging. Bumbling. Messing it up on Cary Blanchard's blown 30-yard field goal and finally with a fumble at the Tampa Bay 10 by super-scrub quarterback Kelly Holcomb.

Score was 28-28.

Dilfer already had taken on hard-smacking George Patton style. Given a chance on Holcomb's flub with 52 seconds to go, No.

12 gnashed teeth and found ways to make it work.

For the Bucs, there came late gushes of delicious oxygen. After 59-plus minutes of erratic offense, Boss Dilfer drove Tampa Bay into cozy range for Mike Husted's victorious three-point kick. For once, his Bucs had come back from the Sunday dead.

"This was the biggest win I've had," Dilfer declared. "I wouldn't have said, if we'd lost, that the season was over, but we would have been in big, big trouble."

Amen!

This may be the pendulum game in Tampa Bay's season. After beginning with five straight wins, imagine the mentality had the Bucs dipped to 5-4? Failing to Colts who had beaten nobody? Tampa Bay's troupe would've departed Indiana wondering if it would win another in 1997.

"No question about it," Dilfer said. "But now, with a little luck and some crucial efforts, we rise to 6-3 and will unquestionably be looking at our remaining (seven) games with far more hopeful eyes."

Call the Smithsonian. Clear a shelf. Make a historic place for the Dilfer Bucs, who at last have proven they can bail out a desperate situation. Rising from fourth-quarter ashes. Some way. Somehow. Suddenly, a 10-6 record again seems reachable. "It's gratifying to do something that people have thought you and your team couldn't do," the Tampa Bay quarterback said.

Dilfer's brain, along with his arm and competitive body, was in high Indianapolis gear. Making critical adjustments to offensive coordinator Mike Shula's plans.

There was the 6-yard scoring pass to Karl "The Truth" Williams that put Tampa Bay ahead 21-10 after the extra point. "All year, the Colts have used a strong-safety blitz in key situations," Dilfer said. "I kept looking for it. Hoping they would tip it off. Then, as we lined up on third and goal, (Robert) Blackmon gave it away. I saw it in his eyes. I audibled to the out pattern with Truth. It was wide open."

Later, at a more critical juncture, Dilfer again took control. Shula had scripted a strong-side sweep. Trent made a quick sales pitch as to why he thought Williams would be a solid bet to get, and beat, one-on-one coverage. QB won out. Called the play. Threw to The Truth, creating a 24-yard TD that lifted the Bucs to 28-all. Dilfer's statistics _ 16 of 25 for 164 yards _ will not make him the talk of the NFL. But the general with budding ferocity did throw three TDs. No interceptions. "I must lead the world in 3-yard touchdown passes," he said with a late Sunday grin.

"This comeback win should be credited mostly to our special teams, plus to some guys who made huge plays down the stretch," Dilfer continued. "But, for me, this is the first time the Bucs ever truly rallied around their quarterback.

"In the evolution of this football team, this was huge. Inside, I'd always told myself it would happen." After 3{ seasons, Trent Dilfer was at last feeling like an NFL quarterbacking man.

Tampa Bay had deserved to lose, but refused to (with a little Colts collusion).

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