American Football: Tampa go top to cheer hardy fans

FOLLOWERS OF the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are used to suffering. Pre- season expectations are generally so low that their supporters in the UK produce a monthly fanzine entitled There's Always Next Year, summing up the frustration and futility of following one of the NFL's most consistently mediocre franchises.

Now, following their 23-16 triumph over the Detroit Lions on Sunday, there is a growing belief that it finally could be Tampa's year. The win was their sixth in a row, a club record, and it sent them to the top of the NFC Central division for the first time since 1981.

It was a typical Tampa performance. They trailed for most of the game but were never out of the picture, finally taking the lead with four minutes left when their quarterback, Shaun King, threw a 22-yard touchdown to Mike Alstott.

Once again, the win owed much to one of the best defences in the league. With the scores tied and Detroit threatening, the safety John Lynch intercepted a pass by the Lions quarterback, Gus Frerotte, a turnover which enabled King and Allstott to score less than a minute later.

Defence has rarely been a problem for the Buccaneers, but it now seems they have offensive options too. The rookie quarterback King, playing only his second game in place of the injured Trent Dilfer, again showed poise and vision which belied his lack of experience, completing 23 of 37 passes for 297 yards and two touchdowns. With King in the ascendancy, the Buccaneers seem play-off bound.

The same was being said of the Seattle Seahawks three weeks ago but how times have changed. After two surprise losses the Seahawks looked certain to win at home against lowly San Diego.

Instead they fluffed their lines once again as running back Ricky Watters fumbled twice and kicker Todd Peterson missed three field goals in the fourth quarter. Peterson's misery was compounded when San Diego's John Carney converted a 41-yard kick to earn his side a 19-16 win.

"It was a critical game and we needed the win," Peterson said. "We shot ourselves in the foot and I was a major factor in that."

The Seahawks are now in a dogfight because their divisional rivals, the Kansas City Chiefs, won for the third week in a row. Ironically the Chiefs owed their 31-28 win over the Minnesota Vikings to their kicker, Pete Stoyanovich, who nailed a 38-yard effort with three seconds remaining of the match.

Seattle are not the only team to suffer late-season nerves. The Miami Dolphins, a legitimate Super Bowl contender a month ago, suffered a fourth quarter collapse against the struggling New York Jets and they have now lost three in succession.

The Jets receiver, Keyshawn Johnson, scored twice in the final session and Miami's misery was capped when Omar Stoutmire intercepted an errant Dan Marino pass and returned it 68-yards for a touchdown.

Miami's loss meant that the Jacksonville Jaguars joined the St Louis Rams as play-off qualifiers without playing a game. There were celebrations in Indianapolis too, where the Colts ensured their participation in the post-season with a 20-15 victory over New England.

There was late drama in Green Bay where Packers' hopes were dashed in a frenetic finale against the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers quarterback, Steve Beuerlein, scored with a five-yard-run as time expired to give the visitors a 33-31 victory.

Packers were caught cold because Beuerlein so rarely runs with the ball. "That's not one of my fortes," he admitted afterwards, "I guess five yards is about my limit. We were trying to catch them off guard and it worked."

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