QB Jeff Garcia's hard-nosed scrambling helped keep several drives alive but the Bucs' passing game had trouble getting into a rhythm
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got down and dirty but their postseason chances got a brand new shine.
On an afternoon of alternating light and heavy rain, the Buccaneers pounded out a 23-20 victory over the visiting New Orleans Saints, taking a critical intradivision battle and keeping pace with the Carolina Panthers. Carolina rallied for a 35-31 win over Green Bay at home on Sunday.
The Bucs and Panthers, both 9-3, will meet next Monday night in a heavyweight matchup for first place in the NFC South.
The Buccaneers win evened the season series with New Orleans and may have put the Saints out of contention for the NFC South title at 6-6. The Atlanta Falcons, at 7-4 coming into the weekend, had a late-afternoon game in San Diego still to play.
"I thank our fans for hanging in there today," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Tough day, not a great day to watch a football game. We're happy to be 9-3, we've won four straight in the fourth quarter and we've put ourselves in position for an exciting finish to the season."
It was far from easy, and not only because an alternating light and heavy rain made footing difficult and helped keep the Bucs' offense out of synch. Tampa Bay scored two touchdowns early in the second half – both short drives set up by good special teams work – to take a 20-10 lead but New Orleans came back to tie it in the fourth quarter.
Tampa Bay won the game on Matt Bryant's 37-yard field goal with 1:55 remaining, following an interception deep in Saints territory by S Jermaine Phillips. The Bucs were thrilled to have Phillips back after their starting strong safety had missed the last three games with a forearm fracture.
"He's a clutch player," said Gruden of Phillips, who finished with eight tackles and a pass defensed to go with his pick. "He made some great hits and obviously some big plays in the passing game. He's got a presence about him that exudes confidence, he's a great playmaker and he made a difference today."
MVP candidate Drew Brees – who threw for 296 yards on the day on 25-of-47 passing – still had plenty of time to drive the Saints to the winning score, but CB Phillip Buchanon ended the threat with an interception of a pass intended for WR Lance Moore that was hurried by DE Gaines Adams.
That was the Buccaneers' third interception of the day, as LB Cato June ended another scoring threat in the third quarter with an end zone pick of a pass deflected by CB Ronde Barber. Tampa Bay nearly had a fourth pick off Brees in the final period but S Tanard Jackson's leaping grab of a deep pass in the end zone was negated by a defensive holding flag on Barber on the other side of the field.
Amazingly, that was the only penalty the Buccaneers would draw all day, their lowest total since they were also flagged just once at Carolina last September 30. It was a costly one, however, as the resurrected drive ended in RB Pierre Thomas' 20-yard touchdown on a third-down screen pass. Two drives later, after a shanked 18-yard punt by Josh Bidwell, the Saints tied the game on a 23-yard field goal drive.
The Saints picked up 332 yards of total offense on the day but that was well short of the 411.9 yards the league's top-ranked attack had been averaging coming into the day. New Orleans gained 438 yards of offense against Tampa Bay in a season-opening 24-20 win over the Bucs in the Superdome.
Brees had to carry the offensive burden because Tampa Bay's defense shut down most of the small sampling of runs the Saints attempted. New Orleans had just seven rushing yards at halftime and 44 yards on 18 carries by game's end.
"They put the ball in Drew's hands, and rightfully so," said Gruden. "The conditions made it hard on him…and our defense played good. I hope they get some more credit after today."
The Bucs' offense skewed in the other direction, as the home team ran for 149 yards on 34 carries (4.4-yard average) but threw for just 119 yards. Garcia completed only nine of 23 passes – a far cry from the four straight games of over 70% passing he had coming in – but was not intercepted and was able to scramble seven times for 42 yards. His biggest pass of the day was a 39-yard touchdown strike to WR Antonio Bryant that gave the Bucs their 10-point edge in the second half.
RB Warrick Dunn carried the load in the running game, running 22 times for 74 yards, most of it tough yards up the middle. Recently returned RB Cadillac Williams contributed, too, with four carries for 20 yards, including an eight-yard scoring run in the third quarter that gave Tampa Bay a 13-10 lead. That was Williams' first touchdown since he suffered a season-ending knee injury at Carolina last September. The Bucs are now 8-1 all-time in games where Williams scored a touchdown, and they're thrilled to finally make another mark in that category.
On a day when the conditions made it difficult to sustain drives, the Bucs' special teams made an enormous difference. Despite that one 18-yard miss, Bidwell finished the game with a fine 39.5-yard net average and he dropped three punts inside the 20. The Bucs asked him to angle his kicks for much of the afternoon, and his punt out of bounds at the Saints' seven-yard line in the fourth quarter came just moments before Phillips' interception.
Bidwell also hung several of his punts very high in the air, which gave Tampa Bay's coverage group time to hem in dangerous return man Reggie Bush. Bush, playing for the first time in over a month due to a knee ailment, tried to find an opening by running laterally but lost a total of 16 yards on his two runbacks.
In addition, Bryant made all three of his field goal attempts and rookie sensation Clifton Smith once again made a difference in the return game. He gained 82 yards on five punt returns and 76 yards on three kickoff returns, and his 34-yard kickoff return to open the second half set up a 46-yard touchdown drive. His 42-yard return of a 70-yard punt in the second quarter also set up Bryant's second field goal, which temporarily gave the Bucs a 6-3 lead.
Brees put the Saints on top at halftime with a brilliant two-minute drill, driving the visitors 72 yards on six plays for the game's first touchdown. The score came on Brees' scrambling 13-yard pass to Moore just before halftime.
Fortunately, the Bucs continued to respond well when behind on the scoreboard. They are now 4-0 in games in which they are trailing at the end of the first quarter (they were down 3-0 on Sunday) and 3-1 after trailing at the half.
LB Barrett Ruud led the Bucs' defense with 10 tackles, a tackle for a loss and a pass defensed. Barber had seven tackles and three passes defensed and Adams and DE Greg White combined for the Bucs' only sack of Brees, who has been dropped just 10 times all season.
The Bucs' defense established a hard-hitting tone at the game's beginning. Talib and Phillips visited huge hits on Bush and TE Jeremy Shockey, respectively, on the first two plays from scrimmage. However, the Saints kept the drive moving methodically up the middle of the field, relying almost exclusively on quick passes down the line of scrimmage and check-downs over the middle. A holding call on G Carl Nicks put the Saints in a third-and-13 hole at their own 39, but Brees kept the drive moving by rolling away from a blitz and throwing a 22-yard strike to WR Marques Colston on the run.
At the end, however, the Bucs' defense mustered a stop. Brooks knocked a third-and-one pass away from TE Billy Miller and the Saints failed on fourth-and-one with a tricky call. Brees handed to WR Devery Henderson on an end-around and the Bucs were ready, with Ruud trapping Henderson for a loss of three.
The skies were growing noticeably dark at the same time, as the Bucs opened their first drive on their own 33. The Bucs' mood did the same moments later when Garcia's first pass, on a third-and-two, ended up in LB Jonathan Vilma's hands. The play was ruled a fumble, as Garcia found WR Michael Clayton near the sticks but Vilma ripped it from the receiver's grasp and returned it eight yards to the Bucs' 35.
The Bucs held on third-and-one again, with Barber running Bush out of bounds for a loss of three, forcing the Saints to settle for Garrett Hartley's 47-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead 10 minutes into the game.
The Bucs got their first first down on the next drive as Garcia scrambled for seven yards on third-and-four, out to the Tampa Bay 35, as the rain started to fall. A nine-yard Dunn run around a sealed-off right edge and a quick pass out to Bryant for 12 more put the ball into Saints territory. The first sign of trouble from the heavy rain came on the next play, as Bryant slipped on his cut about 20 yards downfield as Garcia's pass sailed by. On the next play, Dunn slipped down untouched for a one-yard loss on an attempted sweep.
Gruden had his first big decision of the game moments later after Jerramy Stevens caught a pass in the right flat and ended up a yard short of the sticks. Since DE Bobby McCray had jumped offsides on the play, the Bucs could choose between third-and-six and fourth-and-one. Gruden chose the latter and sent Williams in to power over right guard for a gain of seven, following a big block by FB B.J. Askew. Garcia's third-and-three pass on the first play of the second quarter appeared to sail on him, going over Bryant's head on a quick slant and setting up a 38-yard field goal attempt for Matt Bryant. Thanks to a nice grab-and-set by Bidwell on a high snap, Bryant was able to spin his kick through to tie the game.
The Saints started their next drive at their 34 but Brees' first two passes were dropped and T Jammal Brown then false started. On third-and-15, Brees tossed a dangerous sideline pass over several Buc defenders but Moore couldn't quite get up high enough to haul it in and the Saints had to punt.
Williams came back into the game on the ensuing drive and got four tough yards up the middle. Garcia faked to Williams on the next play and handed an end-around to Bryant, who got around the left corner for a gain of 13 to the Bucs' 40. The drive ended there, however, as Garcia's next three passes were incomplete. Unfortunately, Bidwell's punt sailed out of bounds at the Saints' 27.
DT Ryan Sims' stop of Bush for a loss of five and an offensive pass interference call against Shockey killed the Saints' next drive and they had to punt it back from their own 40. Smith's 14-yard return of a 40-yard punt put the ball at the Bucs' 34. The home team failed to gain a first down but Bidwell's 47-yard punt rolled down to the Saints' 11.
The Saints tried to go up top two plays later and Brees had his sights on Henderson on a deep post, but Barber timed his jump perfectly and was able to poke the ball out of the receiver's hands.
The Saints' next punt was an adventure. From his own end zone, Glenn Pakulak launched a towering 70-yard punt that went well over Smith's head. Smith caught the ball on one hop, however, then did his thing, slicing through the coverage of a return of 42 yards.
That put the ball at the Saints' 37, and the Bucs capitalized after an early stumble. The game's first sack, a six-yarder by LB Scott Shanle, made it third-and-14 at the 43 and an 11-yard screen pass to Shockey made it fourth-and-three at the 32. Too close to punt and too far to attempt a field goal in the rough weather, the Bucs went for it and Garcia moved the chains with a season-long 20-yard scramble.
The Bucs faced a third-and-three at the five after Dunn ran for six yards and Garcia scrambled again for one. After a Saints timeout, the Bucs failed to punch it when Garcia's scrambling throw sailed behind Clayton in the left front of the end zone. Bryant added his second field goal, a 23-yarder, to put the Bucs up by three with 2:34 to play in the half.
That was plenty of time for the Saints' offense, which started off with a 14-yard catch-and-run by Shockey. That play brought on the two-minute warning. Two snaps later, Brees delivered a 31-yard strike down the middle to Colston, who was tackled at the Bucs' 21. On third-and-two from the Bucs' 13, Brees rolled right and threw a touchdown strike to Moore to give the Saints a 10-6 halftime lead.
The second half started off well for the Buccaneers, as a facemask penalty tacked 15 yards onto Smith's 34-yard kickoff return, putting the ball at the Saints' 46. Dunn slipped on first down but not before he had picked up nine yards up the middle. Operating out of a hurry-up attack, the Bucs got a first down at the 35 but soon faced a third-and-six, which they converted in unusual fashion. Garcia's pass was a bit behind Askew but Bryant made a diving catch for 12 yards after it had tipped off Askew's hand.
Garcia scrambled again two plays later and gained 11 yards up the middle for a first down at the eight. Williams took it in from there, getting around right end for his first touchdown since September 23, 2007. That gave the Buccaneers a 13-10 lead five minutes into the second half.
Brees tried to hit Bush on his first two passes of the next drive but both were incomplete. On third-and-10, the pass rush finally got to Brees as Adams and White combined for an eight-yard sack. The resulting punt was a 38-yard line drive that Smith returned 12 yards to the Saints' 43.
Garcia hit Bryant on the long touchdown pass just two plays later. Bryant got wide open down the middle of the field and had to slow up just a bit to let Garcia's pass get to him. It wasn't enough for the New Orleans defenders to catch up, however, as Bryant crossed the goal line a few yards after catching the pass for his third touchdown of the season. The Bucs had a 20-10 lead with 8:36 left in the third quarter.
Adams forced a third-and-seven on the Saints' next possession with a hard hit on Brees as he threw, but the New Orleans passer had plenty of time on his next drop-back to find Colston for a gain of 16. New Orleans' drive reached the Bucs' 20 before Tampa Bay's defense came up with its first takeaway.
On second-two from the 20, Brees tried to hit Shockey on a slant into the end zone, but Barber reached in front to tip it away and June acrobatically reeled in the deflection with one hand. It was June's first interception of the season and it gave the Bucs possession at the 20 after the touchback.
A nine-yard run by Dunn set up a third-and-two at the 28 but Garcia's pass to what appeared to be an open Bryant was tipped at the line by Kendrick Clancy. Bidwell then boomed a high, hanging 42-yard punt and the coverage unit chased Bush all over the field to drop him for a loss of 12 all the way back at the Saints' 18.
Brees moved the Saints back to midfield with a 20-yard strike to Henderson, and a 10-yard pass to Miller set up a first down at the Bucs' 28. Jackson appeared to end the threat with a leaping interception in the end zone, but Barber was flagged for defensive holding on the other side of the field and the turnover was negated. That also gave the Saints a new first down at the 28. Three plays later, Thomas took a swing pass out to the right and weaved 20 yards for a touchdown, making it 20-17 with 12:09 to play.
The momentum continued to swing the Saints' way as the Bucs were forced into a three-and-out and had to punt. Disaster was narrowly averted when Vilma forced Garcia to fumble on an eight-yard sack as T Jeremy Trueblood dived over the pile to recover the loose football. The Bucs' coverage team once again bottled up a madly scrambling Bush on the punt return, dropping him at the Saints' 27.
The Bucs' defense came up with one of its biggest stops of the day on the ensuing possession. Forced into a third-and-four, Brees tried to hit Colston short over the middle but Ruud came up quick to break up the pass.
Starting again at their own 30, the Bucs once again went out in just three plays. Worse yet, Bidwell's punt slid off the side of his foot and traveled just 18 yards to the Bucs' 48.
Brees hit Shockey immediately for 21 yards down to the Bucs' 27 and White leaped up to knock away his next pass on first down. After a two-yard Thomas run, S Sabby Piscitelli broke up a pass into the end zone. Hartley then tied the game with a 43-yard field goal with 5:34 to play.
The Bucs passing game finally hit two plays into the next drive, as Garcia hit Clayton on a deep crossing route for a gain of 26 to the Saints' 48. The Bucs had to punt a minute later, however, and Bidwell angled his kick out of bounds at the Saints' seven with 3:50 left in regulation.
Tampa Bay's defense made the next big play, as Phillips stepped in front of Colston and caught his own pass deflection for an interception three plays into the Saints' drive. Phillips got the ball back to the Saints' 17.
Dunn was stopped for no gain on first down and the Saints used their second timeout with 2:18 to play. An incompletion and a sack brought on the two-minute warning as the Bucs were prepared to try a 37-yard field goal. Bryant nailed it after the short break, giving the Bucs their final edge.
Brees had another chance to rally the Saints but Buchanon picked him off on the third play of the drive after Adams had chased him nearly to the sideline. Two Dunn runs and a Garcia kneel-down killed the clock.
The Bucs' 9-3 record stands as their second-best mark ties the 2002 Super Bowl team for the best 12-game start in team history. The Bucs are tied with Carolina for the second-best record in the NFC behind the New York Giants and are in excellent position to fight for a first-round bye.
Game Notes: The Bucs closed the all-time series gap with New Orleans to 15-19 overall and 6-8 in games played in Tampa … The Buccaneers matched the second best home win total in team history with their sixth victory at Raymond James Stadium this year. The Bucs finished 6-2 at home in 1981, 1984, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2007. The best home record in team annals was a 7-1 mark in 1999. By going to 6-0 at home for the first time ever, the Buccaneers kept alive the possibility of the first undefeated home run in the team's 33 years. … Among coaches who began their careers in the Super Bowl era, Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden is now the third-youngest to reach 100 career victories, playoffs included. Gruden was 45 years and 105 days old on Sunday when the Buccaneers topped the Saints. John Madden was the youngest to reach the century mark, at 41 years and 230 days, and Bill Cowher was second at 44 years and 208 days.] … With four games to go, K Matt Bryant already has the fourth highest single-season scoring total in franchise history. Bryant's 11 points on the day pushed his season total to 110. Bryant scored 118 points last year for the third-highest total on the list; the only two higher-scoring seasons belong to former K Martin Gramatica (currently on the Saints' injured reserve list), who had 128 in 2002 and 126 in 2000.
Inactives: The Buccaneers named the following eight players inactive before Sunday's game: QB Brian Griese, WR Dexter Jackson, RB Noah Herron, S Donte Nicholson, LB Matt McCoy, T James Lee, DT Greg Peterson and designated third quarterback Josh Johnson. Griese was out due to injury.
The Saints named the following eight players inactive: CB David Pittman, RB Mike Bell, FB Mike Karney, LB Marvin Mitchell, G Jamar Nesbit, T Jermon Bushrod, WR David Patten and designated third quarterback Joey Harrington. Karney was out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, DT Jovan Haye sustained a knee injury in the second quarter and did not return.
The Saints did not report an injury from the sideline during the game.