There were seven minutes left in the game on Monday Night Football at Raymond James Stadium when Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Todd Bowles called out the punt team with his team trailing by 13 points to the New Orleans Saints. Bowles had briefly considered going for it on fourth-and-10 from the Buccaneers' 25, but instead decided to give his defense and Tom Brady one more chance.
Tom Brady's six-yard touchdown pass to rookie RB Rachaad White with three seconds left completed a stunning rally as the Buccaneers defeated their bitter division rivals, 17-16, in a game that counted as the 44th fourth-quarter comeback victory of Brady's incredible career. That set a new NFL record, breaking a tie with Peyton Manning.
"Just like we drew it up," said Brady to open his postgame press conference.
In reality, it was a stunning outcome that seemed out of reach midway through the fourth quarter. The Buccaneers won for the first time this season when trailing at any point by 10 or more points. They also broke a streak of four straight home losses to New Orleans, including two straight in which they failed to score a touchdown, both of which occurred in prime time.
"Great job, great execution," said Bowles. "Tom did a great job of seeing where they were doubling and going to the open guy, and everybody was executing well, putting the ball back down, getting lined up, executing and getting out of bounds and understanding what we needed to do."
The comeback began with a 91-yard touchdown drive after Carl Nassib's pass deflection forced the Saints to go with Wil Lutz's third field goal with eight minutes to go. Brady then directed a 91-yard touchdown drive that hinged on a 44-yard pass-interference call drawn by Mike Evans on Saints CB Paulson Adebo. Brady threw a one-yard touchdown pass to rookie TE Cade Otton one play later to make it a six-point game with three minutes to play.
"There was like six-something left to play," said Bowles of the decision to punt. "We had a lot of time on the clock right there and we figured we could get them backed up and make them punt and still get the same field position. It was fourth-and-10. If we don't get it on fourth-and-10, they kick the field goal, we don't win this game because they go up two scores and we lost 26-17."
After the Otton score, Nassib came up big again on the ensuing series, with a 10-yard sack that made it third-and-17 at the Saints' 18. New Orleans QB Andy Dalton found TE Taysom Hill deep over the middle for what could have been the game-clinching play but S Keanu Neal delivered the hit that broke up the play. Brady then calmly directed an 11-play, 63-yard drive that included a magnificent 15-yard catch by Julio Jones to make it first-and-goal at the five.
"It was great," said Brady. "Great route by Rachaad, great catch. [Offensive Coordinator] Byron [Leftwich] made a great call. It was a great team win. We've got a lot of games coming down to the end, some we've won, some we've lost, which is why we're 6-6. It's not we're we want to be but we'll keep fighting."
The victory improved the Buccaneers' record to 6-6 and gave them a 1.5-game lead on the 5-8 Falcons in the NFC South. The Saints dropped to 4-9 as Tampa Bay finished off its first series sweep of New Orleans since 2007. The Buccaneers also beat the Saints in the Superdome in Week Two, 20-10.
The Buccaneers' second win over the Saints was similar in that the offense failed to get into gear until the fourth quarter. In Week Two, Tampa Bay used five late turnovers to turn a 3-3 contest into a 20-10 victory; on Monday, the Buccaneers drove 16 plays on their opening drive for a 21-yard Ryan Succop field goal but otherwise struggled to consistently move the ball. The home team managed just 230 yards of offense before its final two drives. The Buccaneers also lost the turnover battle, 2-0, as an interception by LB Demario Davis in the second quarter and a fumble by White in the third period helped New Orleans pull away.
The Buccaneers' defense held New Orleans to 298 total yards of offense, 14 first downs and just five conversions on 14 third-down tries. A breakdown leading to Dalton's 30-yard touchdown pass to Hill in the second quarter helped the Saints build a first-half lead but the Bucs held the visitors to three field goals in three red-zone incursions, which proved critical.
Brady finished the game with 36 completions in 54 attempts for 281 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. His top target was WR Chris Godwin, who caught eight of 13 targets for 63 yards. Mike Evans hauled in all four of his targets for 59 yards. White started the game and had 69 yards on 15 total touchdowns, while Leonard Fournette added 81 yards on 16 touches.
"It was a team win," said Bowles. "They showed gut, they showed grit and they played well together. It was a complete team effort. The defense got the ball back, the offense cashed it in. We got it back one more time, they cashed it in one more time. It was a good team effort."
The Bucs got the ball first and moved the chains on their second snap with Brady's 14-yard out to Godwin. Two White carries made it third-and-two from the Bucs' 47 and another out to Godwin kept the drive alive. From the Saints' 47, Brady found Gage on the left sideline for a gain of 11 and White then went over right guard for six more. On third-and-four, after a failed screen play, Brady zipped a quick pass down the middle to Fournette for eight yards and a first down at the Saints' 21. Three Fournette plays – two runs and one pass – made it first-and-goal at the six. Neither a Fournette run up the gut nor a tunnel screen to Godwin gained any traction, and a wide screen pass to Fournette was stopped at the three, leading to a field goal try. Ryan Succop nailed it from 21 yards for a 3-0 Bucs lead.
The Saints started their first drive at their own 29 after a good return from by rookie Rashid Shaheed. Two short Kamara runs made it third-and-five and a big Bucs blitz worked well, leading to an eight-yard sack by Lavonte David.
After the Saints' punt, the Bucs started again at their own 24. Fournette caught a short pass and twisted away from a tackler to back his way to the 35 for a quick first down. However, the Bucs faced a third-and-four moments later and Brady's pass in White's direction fell incomplete. Jake Camarda's 46-yard punt was fair caught at the 13.
The Saints got their first incursion into Bucs territory two plays into the next drive when Dalton went deep down the left side to Shaheed for 40 yards. A holding penalty on T James Hurst put the Saints in a second-and-16 hole and an eight yard pass to WR Jarvis Landry brought on the end of the first quarter. After the two teams switched sides, Dalton tried to hit TE Adam Trautman on an out but it was overthrown and the Saints punted away, with Jaelon Darden executing a fair catch at the 13.
The Bucs appeared to go three-and-out on the ensuing possession but a third-down defensive holding call on CB Paulson Adebo kept the drive alive. Brady found rookie TE Ko Kieft for 12 yards out wide to the left, but a deep shot on the next play to WR Scotty Miller was broken up on the sideline. On third-and-eight, Brady tried another long pass to Julio Jones on the right sideline but it was just out of the receiver's reach. Camarda's 66-yard punt went into the end zone for a touchback.
The Saints quickly faced a third-and-four after a direct-snap run by Taysom Hill only gained a yard. Dalton had a long time in the pocket to survey the field on the next play and eventually found Shaheed for 19 yards and a first down. Three plays later, on third-and-six from the Saints' 49, Trautman worked his way into a wide-open zone on the right side and got 20 yards on a catch-and-run. On the next snap, Dalton again had plenty of time to work and eventually found Hill open down the left sideline for a 30-yard touchdown.
A Fournette five-yard run and a five-yard out to Godwin moved the sticks to start the next drive, but three plays later Adebo knocked away a third-and-13 pass intended for Godwin and the Bucs had to punt again with five minutes left in the half. The Bucs' coverage team allowed Shaheed to escape up the right sideline for a return of 41 yards to the Bucs' 40.
The Bucs managed to force a punt thanks in part to WR Chris Olave dropping a deep out on third-and-nine, and it rolled to a stop at the Bucs' 11. The Bucs got one first down on a five-yard run by White and Brady's clear-out route to the rookie back for 12 yards on third down. The Bucs faced a second-and-eight at their own 30 as the two-minute warning arrived. Two plays after the break, Brady converted a third-and-three with an out to Evans, a play that had to be reviewed after initially being ruled incomplete. Unfortunately, Davis intercepted Brady's next pass at midfield with 1:27 left in the half.
Dalton started the ensuing drive with quick sideline passes for 10 yards to Olave and 12 to Shaheed. After two short Kamara plays, the Saints called a timeout facing a third-and-two at the 19 with 30 seconds left in the half. Dalton tried to hit Landry at the goal line on third down but the pass was just out of reach. Wil Lutz came on to kick a 38-yard field goal, giving the Saints a 10-3 halftime lead.
The Saints got the ball to start the second half after a touchback but gave it up quickly on a third-and-out, with David tracking down Ingram quickly on a third-and-seven swing pass. Darden caught the ensuing punt at the Bucs' 11 and got it back to the 26 before being forced out of bounds.
Two plays into the drive, Brady threaded a pass to Evans between two defenders down the right numbers for 22 yards. Another deep shot to Jones fell incomplete and a holding call on Josh Wells made it second-and-20. Two plays later, White caught a short pass on third down and fumbled on his attempt to get downfield. The ball rolled down to the Saints' 32 and was recovered by New Orleans DE Carl Granderson.
The Saints ground out one third down on three short plays then got seven yards on a scrambling dumpoff to Ingram. A short curl by Landry moved the sticks and got the ball into Bucs territory, and Hill came in to throw a 21-yard completion to Olave on and in-and-out route. Trautman broke through several tackles two plays later to gain a first down at the 11 on a short pass. The Bucs' defense got a stop at that point and New Orleans settled for a 21-yard field goal, making it 13-3 with three minutes left in the third quarter.
The Bucs' ensuing drive started with consecutive eight-yard runs up the middle by Fournette and a tunnel screen to Godwin that was good for six more to the Bucs' 47. A tipped pass by Cameron Jordan made it third-and-four and Brady converted that one with a quick out pass to Cade Otton for 10 yards, carrying the ball over midfield. It was third-and-10 moments later after two incompletions, and a short pass to Otton made it fourth-and-seven as the third quarter came to an end. The Bucs started the fourth period with a punt into the end zone for a touchback.
Dalton hit Olave on a 26-yard pass to get the ball over midfield, and then found the rookie again three plays later to convert a third-and-three, getting the ball into the red zone. OLB Carl Nassib tipped away a third-down pass, forcing the Saints to go with a 29-yard Lutz field goal.
The Bucs had eight minutes left when they got the ball back but Brady took a sack on first down and a punt followed three plays later. Tampa Bay's defense managed to force a three-and-out, giving it back to the offense with five minutes to play. Brady then engineered an 81-yard touchdown drive, starting with completions of 13 yards to Godwin and 14 to Evans. A holding call on Donovan Smith put the Bucs in a second-and-20 hole at the Saints' 45 but Brady's deep shot to Evans drew a pass-interference call on Adebo, making it first-and-goal at the one. On the next play, Brady rolled right and threw a one-yard scoring pass to Otton with almost exactly three minutes left in regulation.
On the ensuing drive, Nassib got to Dalton on second down for a 10-yard sack to make it third-and-17. Dalton seemed to find Hill deep down the middle for a first down but S Keanu Neal broke it up with a well-timed hit. The Saints had to punt and the Bucs got the ball back at their 37 with 2:29 to go. Brady hit Jones for five and Godwin for nine to make it first down just over midfield as the two-minute warning arrived.
Two more catches by Otton and a shot over the middle to Fournette got the ball to the 27 and made it second-and-six. Brady's hurried pass to Otton second down was incomplete, stopping the clock with 58 seconds left. The Bucs lined up trips to the right on third down and isolated Scotty Miller to the left, and a quick slant to Miller moved the sticks. On the next play, Jones made a great leaping catch near the sideline for a first down at the Saints' five-yard line. An apparent touchdown pass to Godwin was erased by a holding penalty, and a pass over the middle to Godwin was knocked down with 12 seconds left. A sideline pass to Godwin got it down to the six and he got out of bounds with eight seconds left. On the next snap, White ran a pivot route out to the right, caught Brady's short pass and dived over the line for the score.