Sunday's game at the Superdome is do-or-die for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and at halftime the Buccaneers are very much alive.
Tampa Bay took a 10-7 lead over the New Orleans Saints on a heady 96-yard drive in the second quarter, then turned back to New Orleans' scoring attempts with turnovers at the goal line. That allowed the Bucs to take a three-point lead into the intermission; they still need a victory over the Saints and losses by Green Bay and the New York Giants in the later afternoon slate to take the final NFC playoff spot.
Overall, the Bucs won the yardage battle against the high-powered Saints, 181-161. QB Josh Freeman completed 13 of 16 pass attempts for 158 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, hooking up with eight different targets. That included such recent newcomers in the Bucs' attack as WR Dezmon Briscoe (two catches for 12 yards), WR Preston Parker (2 for 33) and RB Kregg Lumpkin (1 for 12). Briscoe's second grab was a brilliant two-yard fade into the back right corner of the end zone that completed that 96-yard drive.
Connor Barth kicked a 43-yard field goal to convert the Bucs' opening drive into points. Tampa Bay also took another possession deep into Saints territory near the end of the first half but lost it on consecutive sacks of Freeman, the second of which forced a fumble that DL Jeff Charleston recovered.
The Saints drove into Buccaneer territory after that turnover but lost the ball on S Larry Asante's first career interception. Earlier, New Orleans missed out on another scoring opportunity when RB Julius Jones fumbled at the Bucs' one-yard line.
The Bucs won the toss and received, with Micheal Spurlock weaving his way to the 23. Freeman was forced to scramble on first down and threw incomplete in TE John Gilmore's direction, but a play-action pass to TE Ryan Purvis worked like a charm on second down. That gained 11 yards and a first down at the 34, but Freeman had to burn a timeout before the next snap.
Blount's first carry gained five yards and a screen pass to RB Kregg Lumpkin – his first catch of the year – moved the chains with a pickup of 12. Blount found the left corner on the next play and gained 16 yards to the Saints' 33. Blount couldn't get away from LB Danny Clark in the backfield on the next play, losing four yards, and the Bucs had to use their second timeout before the next snap. Freeman impressively escaped a near-sack on the next play but his scramble gained only one yard. He had good protection on third-and-13 and was able to fire a 10-yard strike to Briscoe, which made the resulting field goal try only a 43-yarder. Barth easily drilled it through the uprights for a 3-0 Bucs lead five minutes into the game.
WR Devery Henderson went deep on the first play for New Orleans – something the Bucs have seen before – but the connection just missed. However, a quick slant to Moore was on target and the speedy receiver gained 21 yards to the Saints' 43. An offside call on the Bucs erased a pass breakup by LB Adam Hayward and RB Chris Ivory ran over a Bucs tackler to get 11 yards to Tampa Bay's 41. Hayward nearly intercepted Brees' next pass but the drop was irrelevant because CB E.J. Biggers was flagged for illegal contact. Another deep shot to Henderson from the 31 was broken up by Biggers and Brees' second-down incompletion made it third-and-10. A screen pass to RB Reggie Bush worked just enough to move the sticks. Brees sidestepped a sack two plays later to make it third-and-six, but the Saints converted again with a crossing route to TE Jimmy Graham. That made it first-and-goal at the six and Ivory fought for two yards on the next snap. CB Ronde Barber read a receiver screen on second down and nearly intercepted it, but Brees found Graham on a simple fade-stop on third down for a three-yard touchdown.
A penalty on the ensuing kickoff return forced the Buccaneers to start at their own nine, but Blount picked up four yards off right tackle on first down. His second run, this one up the middle, was stopped for a loss of one to make it third-and-seven. Freeman threw a quick slant to Mike Williams on third down but the play was marked a few inches short of a first down and the Bucs punted. Return man Reggie Bush was quickly bottled up, but the Saints started again at their own 43.
The Saints started with a pitch to Ivory and he got four yards around the right end, though the Bucs' defense closed fast. Good coverage caused Brees to scramble on the next play and LB Geno Hayes chased him out of bounds for a two-yard sack. Brees made the Saints four-for-four on third down tries on the next play, throwing over the middle to a wide-open Bush, who turned upfield for a gain of 19. A seven-yard run by Ivory two plays later made it first down at the Bucs' 23 and brought an end to the first quarter. Two Ivory runs started the second period and made it third-and-five at the 18. The Bucs used their last timeout of the half before the next snap but LB Barrett Ruud just missed a pass breakup on third down and Moore converted with a six-yard catch. From the Bucs' 12, Brees hit WR Adrian Arrington for nine yards but Hayward broke up an attempted fade to Moore on second down. Jones came on to run the ball on third-and-one and appeared to have the first down before Ruud came flying in with a hit that dislodged the ball. DT Frank Okam recovered for the Buccaneers at the four-yard line.
Standing in his own end zone, Freeman stayed calm on a first down pass play and eventually found Gilmore for a gain of nine. Cadillac Williams' first carry of the game was a good one as he slanted over right guard for a gain of seven. The Bucs then tried a trick play, with Spurlock starting on an end-around and then throwing back to QB Josh Johnson. The pass was well-covered by LB Scott Shanle, however, and just incomplete. A quick pass out to WR Maurice Stovall gained seven yards and Freeman made an incredible play to move the chains. A Saints blitz worked perfectly but Freeman somehow spun on a dime and got free to throw an eight-yard strike to Mike Williams. A little luck helped out the Bucs on the next play, as a pass was deflected away from intended-target Kellen Winslow but went right to Stovall for a gain of 38 to the Saints' 27. Freeman then found Winslow for a gain of nine but Blount's second-down run lost a yard. On third-and-two, Freeman tried a fade to Parker but it was broken up and the Bucs once again settled for Barth's field goal attempt. He made it from 37 yards, but the Bucs took the points off the board when the Saints jumped offsides, making it first down at the Saints' 14. A play-action receiver screen to Parker worked perfectly, as Parker eluded one tackler and shot upfield to the Saints' two. On first down, Freeman lobbed the ball into the back right corner of the end zone, where Briscoe made an amazing toe-dragging catch for the go-ahead score.
Tampa Bay's defense came up with a big stop on the next possession, with Barber stopping Jones in the backfield for a loss of six yards on a first down screen and CB Myron Lewis breaking up yet another deep try to Henderson. The Saints had to punt and the Bucs started again at their own 26. Two Blount runs moved the chains and his next first-down carry was good for six. The Saints batted away a play-action rollout pass intended for Gilmore, but Freeman let a third-down play develop and eventually found Parker for 21 yards to the Saints' 37. A play-action pass to Winslow gained 13 more and brought on the two-minute warning. After the break, Freeman absorbed a sack of nine yards back to the 33 and the Saints called a timeout. A delay-of-game penalty cost the Bucs five more yards and Freeman was sacked all the way back at midfield on the next snap. Worse, Charleston also stripped the ball on his sack, forcing and recovering a fumble that gave New Orleans possession at their own 48. The play was reviewed but upheld.
Two quick passes put the ball at the Bucs' 30 before DE Michael Bennett's quick pressure forced an incompletion. S Sean Jones broke up a pass intended for TE Tory Humphrey but was called for defensive holding, making it first down at the Bucs' 25. Two plays later, S Corey Lynch nearly intercepted a pass at the goal line, making it third-and-10. Brees tried to hit Moore on third down but the receiver slipped and the pass went straight to Asante for the rookie's first career interception. The Bucs kneeled on the ball twice to run out the clock and take their three-point lead into halftime.