TAMPA, Fla. -- The fireworks lit up the sky. A couple of Buccaneers took a team flag and did a victory lap around the field. It was a long time coming in Tampa Bay -- 18 years between playoff victories.
Reality is likely to set in Sunday when the Bucs travel to Lambeau Field to face the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. But the fans were celebrating as if it were a Super Bowl when Tampa Bay eliminated the Lions, 20-10, in yesterday's NFC wild-card game.
"We didn't come here to just show up and make the playoffs. We came to make an impact and win," said fullback Mike Alstott, whose 31-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter gave the Bucs a 20-0 lead. "This is exciting for the community. The electricity coming from the crowd was unbelievable."
And what the Bucs did to Barry Sanders was just as hard to believe. One week after he rushed for 184 yards against the Jets, becoming the third back in NFL history to reach 2,000 yards, he was not a factor at all against Tampa Bay. It didn't help that the field was muddy after some heavy rains the last few days.
By the time Alstott scored to give the Bucs the 20-0 lead, Sanders had carried the ball seven times for 15 yards. Tampa Bay led 13-0 at the half and controlled the ball for 20: 41. The two ways to control Sanders, other than the defense just flat-out shutting him down, is to keep the Lions' defense on the field.
"Our focus all week was to play solid run defense," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "I felt like we prepared very well to stop Barry Sanders and I think we were pretty successful doing it."
What happened to Sanders? "He ran into the Bucs defense," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said.
"There's really not a plan to stop Barry, you've just always got to hustle," said Bucs nose tackle Brad Culpepper. "All week, we'd been hearing Barry this and Barry that. Maybe that was fodder for us."
Sanders, who finished with 65 yards on 18 carries, left the locker room after the game without commenting.
Late in the third quarter, Lions quarterback Scott Mitchell was taken from the field on a stretcher with his head immobilized after he suffered a concussion when he was hit by linebacker Derrick Brooks and Culpepper on a 2-yard scramble. Mitchell, who was conscious but groggy, was taken to a local hospital, where he stayed overnight.
The Bucs took a 3-0 lead on Michael Husted's 22-yard field goal with 5: 25 left in the first quarter. Then, after the Bucs' defense held, Tampa Bay's Karl Williams fumbled the punt after he was hit by Eric Stocz. Detroit's Matt Russell tried to pick the ball up and run with it rather than just fall on it. He couldn't hold on. The ball rolled out of bounds at the Bucs' 11 and Tampa Bay kept possession.
Instead of the Lions being in position to at least tie the game, the Bucs drove 89 yards on 17 plays, eating up 8: 50, scoring on a 9-yard pass from Trent Dilfer to Horace Copeland.
"Matt should never have picked the ball up," Lions coach Bobby Ross said. "The idea is to fall on the ball. Don't pick it up."
The Lions scored 10 points in the second half but a key 50-yard pass from Dilfer to Robb Thomas kept Detroit from seriously threatening.
The victory marked another significant step under Dungy, who inherited a team in 1996 that hadn't finished with a winning record or made the playoffs since 1982.
The Bucs won five of their last seven games after a 1-8 start under Dungy, then continued their dramatic turnaround with a 10-6 mark this year that matched the best in franchise history.
"There is a different level of chemistry, team unity that hasn't been here in the past," All-Pro linebacker Hardy Nickerson said. "We just believe in each other. It starts with Tony."
Now the Bucs have to go to Green Bay. In their history, they are 0-16 when the temperature is below 42. It doesn't figure to reach that in January at Lambeau.
"We're going to look at the weather charts," Dungy said. "If it's going to be below 40, we probably will forfeit."
The Bucs obviously are tired of hearing about their inability to win when it's cold.
And they were trying to keep their first playoff game since the 1982 season in perspective.
Asked if they gave the Packers something to think about, Sapp said, "They are the world champions. You don't scare the world champions by beating the Lions."
Pub Date: 12/29/97