With a rookie quarterback making his first start and their most dangerous running back out because of an ankle injury, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used their stout defense to force four turnovers and got just enough offense to overtake the Minnesota Vikings tonight and stay tied for first place in the NFC Central.
Rallying from a four-point halftime deficit, unflappable quarterback Shaun King threw two second-half touchdown passes as the Bucs delighted a record crowd of 65,741 at Raymond James Stadium with a stirring 24-17 victory, ending a five-game Minnesota winning streak with their own fifth straight triumph.
"This was for all the fans of Tampa," said King, a native of nearby St. Petersburg. "This is the biggest win we've had in a long time."
That victory allowed the Bucs to keep a share of the division lead with the 8-4 Detroit Lions, their opponent here Sunday in a contest that will determine a solo leader going into the final three regular season games. The Vikings fell into a tie with Green Bay for second place in the Central at 7-5.
A second-round pick from Tulane and the sixth quarterback taken in the '99 draft, King was playing because starter Trent Dilfer broke his collarbone last week. King led the Bucs to a 16-3 upset last week in Seattle, and Coach Tony Dungy said he will start again next week against the Lions.
Tonight, before a national television audience, King threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Jacquez Green midway through the third period, then added a one-yard scoring pass to tight end Dave Moore for a 10-point Tampa Bay lead with 11 minutes 46 seconds remaining in the game.
The Vikings cut the lead to 24-17 on Gary Anderson's 34-yard field goal with 5:50 to play, then got the ball with 3:24 left at their 30 in an attempt to tie and possibly send the game into overtime.
But the Bucs, with the league's second-best defense, held firm one last time, keeping the Vikings from getting inside their 25. George's fourth-and-19 pass from the Bucs 34 to the sideline was incomplete, intended for Matthew Hatchette. But the only man to get his hands on the ball was Donnie Abraham, a defensive hero all night, who knocked it out of bounds with 16 seconds remaining.
Abraham put the Bucs ahead early when he blitzed from his cornerback position and picked off a quick out pass and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown 89 seconds into the first quarter.
The Vikings hurt themselves badly with at least five dropped passes, including an almost certain touchdown to Randy Moss, and the Bucs' last touchdown was set up by a fumbled punt by Minnesota's Yo Murphy, whom the Vikings signed last week off Tampa Bay's practice squad.
"Our guys hung in there against a lot of adversity," said Dungy, who also had to adjust the offense to play without one of its most dangerous weapons, Warrick Dunn. Dungy decided to deactivate him for the game in hopes he'll heal enough to play against the Lions in six days.
"We had our hands full, and the character of our team really showed," Dungy said. "The guys rallied around Shaun all night. Defensively, the last time we played them we gave up 21 points early, and we really couldn't play our normal defense. Tonight, our defense really focused in."