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Maybe the magnitude of it all has yet to hit Tampa Bay's Shaun King.

Maybe it's hard for a 22-year-old like King to appreciate the remarkable situation he is in: He can become the first rookie quarterback ever to take a team to the Super Bowl by leading the Buccaneers past St. Louis Sunday.

Or maybe he really is as utterly unflappable as he appears.

"It's just football," King said Friday. "It's the same game that everybody played when they were small -- just out with your friends. It's a little bit more complicated, but if you approach it like that I think you play a lot better."

King's poise under pressure is a big reason the Bucs are playing for the NFC Championship.

He's 5-1 as a starter since taking over at quarterback in Week 11 when Trent Dilfer went out for the season with a broken clavicle.

Four of those victories have been of the come-from-behind variety, including last week's 14-13 decision over Washington. That was the first playoff game a rookie QB has won since 1976.

"I don't know what 'it' is, but he's got it," said Tampa's Pro Bowl defensive tackle, Warren Sapp, after the Redskins game.

"When you get into tough situations and excel, that kind of says you have something special," said Tampa coach Tony Dungy. "That's what we feel about him."

Many have not felt that way throughout King's career.

He was a high school superstar in St. Petersburg, Fla., but went unrecruited by the Florida college powers because of his lack of size (he's 6-foot).

King went on to a great career at Tulane, leading the Green Wave to an undefeated season his senior year and posting a gaudy quarterback rating of 183.3 in the process.

Once again, however, the fact he was short, pudgy (225 pounds) and not all that fast kept him from being picked in the first round.

The Bucs took him in the middle of the second.

Dungy had coached him in the Senior Bowl last January and was impressed.

"He had a level head," Dungy said. "He was very serious about the game. His teammates voted him captain. He just moved around and made plays."

Dungy also was impressed by King's pre-draft workout, which was held in 40-mph winds. Some college stars would have opted to postpone the workout, rather than look bad. King showed up and fired away.

"Nothing bothers him," Dungy said.

King was the third stringer in preseason (behind Dilfer and Eric Zeier) but led the Bucs on one long TD drive in all four games.

"I remember how chaotic that two-minute drive was against Washington in preseason," Sapp said. "Everything that could possibly happen -- replays, penalties, all kinds of stuff -- happened. . . . But the kid was just standing out there like, just call the next play, and I can get it done."

The same thing happened in Week 11 in Seattle. After getting hurt, Dilfer was on the sidelines frantically spewing advice at King.

"Will you please chill? I've got it under control," King told him.

All of this isn't to say King has been the second coming of Joe Montana.

He has completed 58 percent of his passes with eight TDs and five interceptions -- respectable numbers. He has averaged just 166 passing yards a game, well below the league average of 209.

The Bucs play conservatively -- power runs inside, safe passes in the flats. They let their 28th-ranked offense play to the strength of their defense, ranked No. 3 in the NFL.

The question entering Sunday's game is whether Dungy can play close to the vest and whether King can produce if he needs to air it out.

The Rams' offense is averaging 34 ppg. Tampa is averaging 16.7.

The Buccaneers are counting on playing their style of game. "We are still going to go out and play great, great 'D' ," Sapp said. "I know Shaun knows that the load isn't on his shoulders, so there shouldn't be any more added pressure. He should be fine."

He may have to be a lot better than fine to beat the Rams.

Class of '99

Quarterbacks drafted in 1999, with team and what overall pick they were:
1. Tim Couch, Cleveland (1)
2. Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia (2)
3. Akili Smith, Cincinnati (3)
4. Cade McNown, Chicago (12)
5. Shaun King, Tampa Bay (50)

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