When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome in Week 16 of the 2009 campaign, it meant a young team had reason to hope heading into the following season.
When the Buccaneers went into the Superdome in Week 17 of the 2010 season and won again, 23-13, it meant they had reason to hope for at least a few more hours. And this time their hopes were for a much more immediate and tangible goal.
Tampa Bay's 2009 win in New Orleans ranked as one of the biggest upsets in NFL history, as a 2-12 squad vanquished a 13-1 team that would go on to win the Super Bowl. Sunday's victory was nothing of the sort – the 2010 Buccaneers have proved they are legitimate playoff contenders and underdogs to nobody – finishing off a 10-6 regular season that includes six road victories in eight tries.
Whether or not Sunday's win would put the Bucs into the postseason wouldn't be decided until later in the afternoon. To secure the final NFC spot, Tampa Bay also needed losses by Green Bay at home against Chicago and by the New York Giants at Washington. But the Buccaneers did their part, finishing off the "Race to 10" that Head Coach Raheem Morris challenged his team with during training camp.
By getting those 10 wins in Morris and General Manager Mark Dominik's second season at the helm, the Buccaneers completed the greatest single-season turnaround in franchise history, improving by seven victories over the 2009 team.
The Saints came into Sunday's game with a chance to win the NFC South and a first-round bye, if Atlanta also lost to Carolina in the Georgia Dome on Sunday. The Falcons took control of that game early and eventually won 31-10, but the Saints kept QB Drew Brees and their starters in the game until nine minutes were left in the game and Tampa Bay had a 20-13 lead.
The Bucs were pleased to get the Saints' best effort, and they responded by scoring a field goal on their opening drive and eventually taking a 10-7 lead into halftime. The Saints led only one time during the afternoon, after scoring a touchdown on their opening possession, but that lead lasted only into the second quarter and Brees and company would never find the end zone again.
It was a spirited effort by Tampa Bay's defense, which held the Saints to 305 yards, nearly 80 below their per-game average heading into the regular-season finale. Most importantly, the Bucs forced three turnovers, two of them near their own goal line and one that led to the final touchdown of the game. The Bucs also sacked Brees three times, one each by LB Geno Hayes, DT Roy Miller and DE Alex Magee. Magee, who was acquired in a midseason trade with Kansas City, forced a fumble by Brees on his third-quarter sack, leading to a Bucs' recovery in Saints territory.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's offense continued to run smoothly despite constant turnover among its top contributors. With WR Arrelious Benn on injured reserve and WR Sammie Stroughter inactive due to a hamstring injury, rookie Dezmon Briscoe was the latest to step up, catching four passes for 65 yards and a touchdown. He scored Tampa Bay's first TD in the second quarter, impressively tapping his toes on a two-yard fade pass into the back of the end zone.
WR Mike Williams concluded his amazing rookie regular season with his team-record 11th touchdown reception, breaking Joey Galloway's 2005 record of 10. He gave the Bucs a 10-point lead in the third quarter following Magee's sack, turning a broken play into an 18-yard touchdown. On the play, QB Josh Freeman faked a sneak on fourth-and-one and then pulled back and looked to make an outlet throw to TE Kellen Winslow. Winslow was held up at the line, though, so Freeman lofted one downfield to Williams, who managed to make a dazzling leaping catch despite being well-covered by Jabari Greer.
Freeman was extremely sharp for the second straight week, matching his totals of 21 completions in 26 attempts from last Sunday's win over Seattle. He had "only" two TD passes after throwing five last week, but was not intercepted for the fourth game in a row and the 11th time in 16 outings in 2010. He had a passer rating of 133.2 on the day and finished the year with a stellar mark of 95.9. That's the second best passer rating in team history and the best by any quarterback who started all 16 games. Over his last four games he threw nine touchdowns and was not intercepted. He also had at least one touchdown pass in the Bucs' last 13 games, a team record for consecutive outings with a TD toss.
And, as has become routine in the second half of the season, Freeman was supported by a good outing by rookie LeGarrette Blount. The Bucs actually emphasized the pass a bit more in Week 17, but the play-action worked repeatedly as the Saints worried about Blount's power running. By the end of the game, Blount had 66 yards on 19 carries, giving him a total of 1,007 on the year. He joins Dominic Rhodes (Indianapolis, 2001) as the only two undrafted rookies in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards.
The special teams also continued their season-long trend of being a deciding factor in the Bucs' favor. K Connor Barth made all three of his field goal attempts, including a clutch 48-yarder later in the fourth quarter that gave the Bucs their 10-point lead and essentially sealed the win. WR Micheal Spurlock set up Barth's second field goal in the third quarter with a 72-yard kickoff return deep into Saints territory. The Bucs' coverage teams held dangerous return men Reggie Bush and Devery Henderson to seven yards on one punt return and an average of 23.7 yards on six kickoff returns, respectively.
The Bucs' offense started fast, taking the opening drive into Saints territory by using a variety of weapons. That included RB Kregg Lumpkin's first catch of the season and a rollout pass to TE Ryan Purvis, just his fifth grab in 2010. Blount's 16-yard run got the ball to the Saints' 33, but the Bucs couldn't gain another first down and had to settle for Barth's 43-yard field goal.
The Saints topped that with their opening drive, however, marching 78 yards on 13 plays for a go-ahead touchdown. The Bucs blitzed repeatedly but just missed dropping Brees twice. CB Ronde Barber and LB Adam Hayward also had near-interceptions, but Brees converted three third downs inside Buccaneer territory, the last one a four-yard TD pass to TE Jimmy Graham.
The Bucs' second drive was a three-and-out but only because a third-down slant to Mike Williams came up inches short. Williams extended for the line as he was tackled by his feet but didn't get a favorable spot and the Bucs punted from their own 18. From there, the Saints launched another drive, this one kept alive by a 19-yard pass to Bush on third-and-eight. Brees later converted a third-and-five with a six-yard pass to Lance Moore that just eluded Barrett Ruud's fingertips, but Ruud got the last laugh three plays later when he forced a fumble by RB Julius Jones that DT Frank Okam recovered at the four.
From there, the Bucs embarked on one of their most impressive drives of the year. Freeman converted a third down deep in Tampa Bay territory by spinning away from a free blitzer and finding Mike Williams for a gain of nine. The biggest gain of the drive came on something of a fluky play, as a pass intended for Kellen Winslow was tipped away and caught by WR Maurice Stovall for 38 yards. The Bucs actually kicked a 37-yard field goal on the drive, but New Orleans' Tracy Porter jumped offsides on the attempt, giving the Bucs a new set of downs at the Saints' 14. Two plays later, Freeman threw a fade to the back corner of the end zone and Briscoe tapped his toes for the first touchdown of his career.
The Bucs threatened to extend their lead late in the second quarter, as a 21-yard catch by Preston Parker got them to the Saints' 37. A Winslow catch took it to the 24, but from there Freeman was sacked twice, the second resulting in a lost fumble near midfield. The Saints still had nearly two minutes to drive for a score from there, and Brees got them to the 25 with a minute to go. Corey Lynch then broke up a pass at the goal line and S Larry Asante picked off the next throw after Moore slipped.
Click here for a detailed description of the first half of action.
New Orleans did manage to tie the game with the opening possession of the second half. Brees converted two more third downs with passes to Adrian Arrington and Moore, putting the ball at the Bucs' 30. But Tampa Bay's defense stopped two runs for short gains and the Bucs' coverage downfield was outstanding on third-and-seven, eventually forcing a Brees' throwaway near the sideline. Garrett Hartley booted a 45-yard field goal to tie up the score at 10-10.
The Bucs took the lead right back on the next drive, though most of the yardage was supplied by Spurlock's 72-yard kickoff return to the New Orleans' 33. A run and a catch by Blount put the ball at the 15 but a crack into the end zone was incomplete and Barth came on to hit a 32-yarder to make it 13-10.
The Saints got to midfield on their next drive but were forced into a third-and-eight and that's when the Bucs' defense came up with its third takeaway. With Hayes blitzing up the middle, Magee got around the corner and swiped the ball out of Brees' hands just before he threw. DE Tim Crowder recovered it for the Bucs at the Saints' 38.
Freeman used a stiff-arm to deny a sack by DE Alex Brown on first down and managed to scramble for 11 yards. Three plays later, on third-and-seven, Freeman found Winslow over the middle but the tight end was tackled a yard short of the sticks. The Bucs chose to go for it on fourth down but had to use a timeout before the snap when the clock was close to expiring. Morris got tricky with the fourth-down play, having Freeman fake a QB sneak and then back up for a pass. His first target, Winslow, was held up at the line, however, so with two blitzers in his face he threw downfield to Mike Williams, who made a stunning catch over a Greer to put the Bucs up by 10.
A holding penalty on a first down run got the Saints' next drive off to a poor start, backing them up to the 17. They got it all back on the next play, a delayed handoff to Bush that was good for 23 yards and a first down. Miller sacked Brees on the next play but was flagged for a face mask penalty, making it first down at the Saints' 47. A short pass to Bush gained nothing on the next snap but did end the third quarter. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Brees threw a fade-stop to Bush on the left sideline for a gain of 20 to the Bucs' 32. Barber leaped in the slot to break up the next pass, nearly intercepting it, and Lewis knocked WR Robert Meachem out of bounds on a second-down five-yard catch. A 12-yard pass to Arrington led to a new set of downs at the 15, but Barber blew up an end-around to Meachem for a loss of three. A holding penalty made it second-and-23 back at the 28. LB Dekoda Watson's diving attempt nearly broke up Brees' next pass, but Arrington caught it for a gain of nine. However, Watson had great coverage on TE Tory Humphrey on the next play near the goal line and it was incomplete. The Saints settled for Hartley's 38-yard field goal, which reduced the Bucs' lead to a touchdown with 11 minutes to play.
Two Blount runs left the Bucs in a third-and-seven on the 23 to start the ensuing drive and Freeman was forced into a futile scramble on third down, but a horse-collar tackle by Brown drew a flag for a personal foul. The good feelings lasted only a few seconds, however, as the next play broke down quickly. A play-action fake worked well but Freeman found no one to throw to and eventually flipped an underhand toss to Blount. Blount lost the ball as he was tackled and it was recovered by New Orleans at the Bucs' 37.
QB Chase Daniel came in to start the next drive and his first pass was a seven-yard rollout strike to Arrington. Two plays later, on third-and-one, a pitch to Bush failed as the ball went through Bush's hands for a fumble. Bush recovered but was tackled by S Sean Jones at the 39, leading to a punt. Biggers was flagged for a holding call on the punt, which went into the end zone, forcing the Bucs to start again at their own 10.
A quick pass to Mike Williams gained eight yards on first down but the Saints got Blount in the backfield on second down for a loss of four. The Bucs also had to use their final timeout to stop the clock before the next play. On the ensuing play, Briscoe somehow got wide open deep behind the defense and Freeman found him after a long time in the pocket, leading to a 54-yard gain to the Saints' 32. Two more Blount runs gained a total of just two yards, and a lob into the end zone went nowhere near a receiver. The Bucs brought on Barth to try a 48-yard goal and he popped it through to push the Bucs lead back to 10 points with 4:01 to play.
Needing two scores, the Saints got one quick first down and nine more yards with their first three plays but used more than 90 seconds. The home team finally used a timeout with 2:13 left, facing a third-and-one at the 49-yard line. Barber broke up a short pass to Bush over the middle and the Saints punted at the two-minute warning. After the Saints' punt, Blount put the game away with three runs for a total of 20 yards.
Game Notes: The Saints lead the all-time series against Tampa Bay, 22-16, but the head-to-head battle is tied at nine wins each since the NFC South was formed in 2002. This win coupled with last year's overtime victory in the Superdome marks the first time the Bucs have won consecutive outings in New Orleans since 2003-05. … CB Ronde Barber made the 200th start of his NFL career on Sunday, all for the Buccaneers. He joins LB Derrick Brooks as the only two players in franchise history to log at least 200 starts. … S Dominique Harris saw his first action of the season in Sunday's game, becoming the 21st different rookie to play in a game for the Buccaneers in 2010. … RB Kregg Lumpkin's 12-yard catch in the first quarter made him the 17th different Buccaneer to catch a pass in 2010. That tied the San Diego Chargers for the most different players with a reception this season. In the second half, FB Erik Lorig got his first grab of the year and made it 18 different receivers, one more than the Chargers. That's the highest number of pass-catchers for the Buccaneers since 2004, when 22 different players recorded at least one reception. … Tampa Bay's 96-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter tied for the sixth-longest scoring march in team history. The Bucs also had a 98-yard touchdown drive the week before against Seattle, which marks just the second time in franchise history (also 2003) that the team has recorded two scoring drives of 96 or more yards in the same season. … Of the five offensive linemen who started for the Buccaneers in the 2010 season opener, only one, left tackle Donald Penn, was in the lineup for Game 16. That marks just the second time in team history (also 1984) that the team finished the season with four different OL starters. … Tampa Bay's 6-2 record in road games this year tied a team record. The only other team to go 6-2 away from home in franchise history was the Super Bowl-winning 2002 squad.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: WR Sammie Stroughter, CB D.J. Johnson, FB Earnest Graham, T Will Barker, DE George Johnson, DT Doug Worthington, TE Nathan Overbay and designated third QB Rudy Carpenter. Stroughter and Graham were out due to injury.
The Saints deactivated these eight players: WR Marques Colston, RB Pierre Thomas, S Usama Young, LB Anthony Waters, DL Anthony Hargrove, TE David Thomas, TE Jeremy Shockey and LB Kawika Mitchell. Colston, Thomas, Waters, Hargrove, D. Thomas and Shockey were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, WR Maurice Stovall sustained a groin injury in the second quarter and did not return. CB E.J. Biggers suffered a knee injury in the second quarter but was able to return to the game. CB Elbert Mack incurred a head injury in the third quarter and did not return.
For the Saints, S Malcolm Jenkins sustained a knee injury in the first quarter and did not return. TE Jimmy Graham suffered an ankle injury in the first period and did not return. RB Chris Ivory sustained a foot injury in the second quarter and did not return.