Head Coach Jon Gruden was reminded of the side-effects of winning the division title
Despite the New Orleans Saints' best efforts to play spoiler, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are champions of the NFC South.
The Buccaneers won the division with a hard-fought, 27-13 victory over the Saints, who finished the season 3-13. The Saints had won their three previous games in Raymond James Stadium and refused to roll over at the end of a very trying season on Sunday. The Bucs never relinquished an early 14-3 lead that came courtesy of two Joey Galloway touchdowns, but neither did they seal the win until a defensive touchdown just after the two-minute warning.
The Bucs needed to take care of business against the Saints because the fading Falcons offered very little resistance to the Carolina Panthers in Atlanta. A 44-11 Carolina win gave the Panthers an 11-5 record, equaling the Bucs' finish, but Tampa Bay's 5-1 record in division games broke the tie for first place.
"It's a great feeling," said Head Coach Jon Gruden, who was showered with a Gatorade bath in the closing seconds by Galloway and tight ends Alex Smith and Anthony Becht. "This is a great accomplishment by our team and I'm very proud of them. It's a credit to the New Orleans Saints – they came in here under adverse circumstances and competed very well today.
"But we hung in there and really earned our 11th victory."
DE Simeon Rice had 14 sacks this season, but none was bigger than the last. Rice, who has terrorized New Orleans on many other occasions, dropped QB Todd Bouman on fourth-and-two from the Bucs' 43, ending the Saints' attempt to tie the game with four minutes to play. Rice had two QB takedowns on the day and now has 16 career sacks against the Saints, his most against any team.
However, the Saints forced a quick three-and-out, helped by a holding call that erased a third touchdown pass to Galloway, and the Saints got another crack at it with 2:11 to play and no timeouts. Fortunately, third-year DE Dewayne White trumped his veteran teammate with an even bigger play. With the Saints once again at midfield, White ran right around right tackle Jamar Nesbit, playing for the injured Jammal Brown, and swatted the ball out of Bouman's hand. White then picked up the loose ball and returned it 34 yards for his first career touchdown and a 14-point lead with 1:43 to play.
White played a huge late-season role in the Bucs' push to the division title. Last Saturday, he blocked a short overtime field goal attempt by Atlanta's Todd Peterson, allowing the Bucs to eventually beat the Falcons in overtime.
"He made a big play obviously last week, to say the least, blocking the kick to extend overtime," said Gruden of White. "His finishing play today was clearly the signature play of the ballgame. He has a great career ahead of him. He's been trained by the best and I think the best is in front of him."
The final score was thus no indication of how tight the game was and how much resistance the last-place Saints offered. Todd Bouman, making just his sixth career start and third of the season, was sharp all day, completing 25 of 37 passes for 265 yards, one touchdown. He was picked off twice, however, leading to 10 Buccaneer points, and he was sacked three times in the final minutes of the game.
The Saints out-gained the Bucs in total yardage, 306 to 285, but Tampa Bay was much more effective on the ground and they didn't turn the ball over once. The Bucs clearly preferred to run when possible, thanks to the Saints' outstanding defensive ends, and they were able to rack up 149 yards on 26 carries, averaging 5.7 yards per tote. RB Michael Pittman helped that average greatly by rambling 64 yards on his only carry of the game. Rookie RB Cadillac Williams finished a marvelous season with 81 yards on 22 carries.
Pittman was used strategically and he responded well. He had three catches for 35 yards, including a tackle-breaking 22-yarder at the beginning of the second half that preserved a drive. With WR Edell Shepherd playing a bigger role in the offense, Pittman also handled the kickoff returns and consistently giving the Bucs great field position with an average of 28.3 yards on three runbacks.
"They know us and they rush the passer very well with Charles Grant and Will Smith," said Gruden. "We isolated some things to Pittman and he helped us greatly today. He didn't touch the ball a lot but he was effective."
If the Bucs hoped to grind a win out against New Orleans in methodical fashion, they certainly started off on the right foot. After S Will Allen's interception at the Bucs' 12 ended a Saints scoring threat on the first possession, Tampa Bay marched 88 yards on 15 plays for the game's first touchdown. Simms converted four third downs on the drive, two on passes to his favorite third-down target, Ike Hilliard, and one on his own sneak. The last play of the drive was a third-down strike to Galloway after the receiver had run a simple pivot route in the front of the end zone.
The march, which also chewed exactly eight minutes off the clock, was the Bucs' longest drive of the season by most barometers. The 15 plays and eight minutes were season highs for any scoring drive, and the 88 yards was just two shy of a 90-yard hike against Detroit on October 2.
On the other hand, the Bucs wasted no time in scoring another touchdown on their next possession, thanks to a total of 91 yards provided by RB Michael Pittman. First, Pittman returned the kickoff 27 yards to Tampa Bay's 30. Then, after a five-yard encroachment penalty, Pittman broke free up the middle and dashed all the way to the Saints' one, just caught from behind by CB Fred Thomas. After an illegal formation penalty erased Mike Alstott's one-yard touchdown run, Simms found Galloway in the end zone again for a four-yard score.
Galloway's two touchdown catches made him the first player in Buc history to reach double digits in that category in a single season. They were his ninth and 10th of the year, moving him past the record of nine first set by Kevin House in 1981 and later tied by Bruce Hill in 1988 and Mark Carrier in 1989. It helped put the finishing touches on a magnificent season by Galloway, a Pro Bowl alternate. Galloway finished the season with 83 receptions for 1,287 yards, the fifth and second-highest totals, respectively, in team history.
The Saints didn't shrink from the shootout, however, scoring twice in the first half on lengthy drives of their own. They responded with a 77-yard march on 10 plays to set up John Carney's 25-yard field goal after Galloway's first touchdown. Bouman completed a 29-yard pass to TE Zachary Hilton on third-and-two, getting the ball down to Tampa Bay's 11. However, LB Derrick Brooks tipped away another third down pass intended for Hilton in the end zone, forcing the Saints to settle for the field goal.
The Bucs didn't get the stop on the next drive, however, as Bouman converted two long third downs, including a third-and-10 pass to WR Devery Henderson that turned into a 24-yard touchdown when three Buc defenders failed to converge on the receiver on time. That drive covered 88 yards and appeared to be doomed when RB Antowain Smith lost five yards back to his own seven on the first play.
The Bucs capped the first-half scoring with a 46-yard Matt Bryant field goal set up by CB Juran Bolden's interception. That gave Tampa Bay a 17-10 lead heading into intermission, and neither team scored in the third quarter. The Saints put together another extended drive to start the fourth period, however. Picking apart the Bucs' zone, Bouman drove the Saints down to the five but Tampa Bay put together its second inside-the-10 defensive stand and forced New Orleans to settle for Carney's 24-yard field goal.
The Bucs' offense struggled mightily in the third quarter, meanwhile, producing just 28 yards and three punts on three possessions. However, Simms ignited a long drive after Carney's second field goal with consecutive 20-yard completions to Galloway and Smith. The drive got down to the Saints' seven on back-to-back runs of 14 and six yards by Williams, but Simms missed a wide-open Mike Alstott on a third-down pass and the Bucs settled for Bryant's 26-yard field goal.
That drive almost ended on the first play, but the Bucs' recent good fortune with instant replay continued. LB Ronald McKinnon appeared to make a diving interception of a pass deflected by DE Will Smith, but Gruden threw the red flag and the ball could be seen hitting the ground and moving in McKinnon's hands. The Saints had tried to get a play off quickly on offense, so Gruden had to issue the challenge without a clear idea if he would win.
"I'm red hot now on challenges," said Gruden with a laugh. "That was a big play. The linebacker made a great effort. It was close enough to challenge. They rushed their offense out on the field and we didn't really get a chance to look at it. We threw that flag hoping the ball hit the ground. Thank God for instant replay. I'll vote for it again."
The Buccaneers had trouble with Bouman and favorite targets Az-Zahir Hakim (6-71), Donte` Stallworth (6-61) and Hilton (5-74). However, Tampa Bay's stingy run defense was at it again on Sunday, holding New Orleans to 71 yards on 23 carries and a 3.1-yards per carry average. Brooks led the defensive effort with 15 tackles and CB Ronde Barber added 11 stops. P Josh Bidwell helped immensely with field position when the offense sputtered in the second half, averaging 46.0 yards with a net of 40.7 on six punts.
The Bucs "weren't perfect," as Gruden pointed out after the game. Most notably, they were flagged 10 times for 107 yards, including two flags that erased touchdowns. They also had consecutive fumbles on one short-lived drive in the third quarter, though they recovered both. It marked just the fourth time this season that the Buccaneers had played an entire game without a giveaway – including the last contest against the Saints – and they won all four.
They were good enough, though, to bring the NFC South crown back to Tampa. The Bucs' 11-5 record is tied for their second-best ever with the 1999 team, which advanced to the NFC Championship Game. It is also a complete reversal of last year's 5-11 mark and the best one-season turnaround in franchise history.
Game Notes: With Kenyatta Walker cleared to play and in the starting lineup for Sunday's game, the Bucs' offensive line completed an impressive streak. Walker, Sean Mahan, John Wade, Dan Buenning and Anthony Davis became the first set of five linemen in franchise history to start every game together for an entire season. … RB Cadillac Williams, who broke the Bucs' rookie single-season rushing record a week ago, added 81 yards to his season total and finished at 1,178. That stands as the fifth-best single-season total in franchise history, just surpassing Reggie Cobb's 1,171 in 1992… RB Michael Pittman returned three kickoffs for the Buccaneers on Sunday, taking on that role for the first time since 2001, his last season with the Arizona Cardinals. Pittman averaged 26.8 yards on six runbacks in '01 and had 12 kickoff returns and four punt returns in four seasons with Arizona. The Bucs elected to give that responsibility to Pittman instead of WR Edell Shepherd on Sunday because Shepherd was playing a larger role at receiver in WR Michael Clayton's absence. Pittman averaged 28.3 on his three returns and his 37-yarder was the longest by a Buccaneer this season. … The Bucs reached the end zone on their first two possessions against New Orleans. That marked the only time all season that Tampa Bay had scored touchdowns on each of its first two possessions in a game. … Michael Pittman's 64-yard run in the second quarter was his longest of the season, and the second longest by a Buc this year after Carnell Williams' 71-yard touchdown at Minnesota in the season opener. It tied for the seventh-longest carry in franchise history and was the third-longest non-scoring run ever by a Buccaneer. Pittman now has four of the 16 longest runs in team history. His 78-yard touchdown against Kansas City on November 11, 2004 still stands as a franchise-long and he also owns runs of 58 and 57 yards, the latter going for a touchdown earlier this season against Miami (Oct. 16). … DE Simeon Rice's sack of QB Todd Bouman in the third quarter was his 13th of the season, and he added a 14th late in the fourth quarter. That is the fourth-highest single-season total in franchise history. Rice now owns three of the top six sack seasons in Buccaneer annals, as he had 15.5 in 2002 and 15.0 in 2003. … Bucs' QB Chris Simms was sacked just once in the game. This season, Tampa Bay is 9-0 in games in which it allows two or fewer sacks of its quarterbacks.
Inactives: The Bucs named the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: RB Derek Watson, S Jermaine Phillips, T Chris Colmer, DT Anthony Bryant, C Scott Jackson, WR Michael Clayton, TE Will Heller and designated third quarterback Tim Rattay.
The Saints named the following eight players inactive: CB Mike McKenzie, LB Sedrick Hodge, T Jammal Brown, TE Shad Meier, TE Nate Lawrie, DE Darren Howard, DT Cedric Woodard and designated third quarterback Adrian McPherson.
Injuries: Neither team reported an injury from the sideline during Sunday's game.