Bucs 27 Saints 23 - the game report
One play to put the NFC South race almost out of reach. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went to tight end Jerramy Stevens, who had all of eight catches in the season's first 11 games. Stevens made a leaping catch near the front of the right side of the end zone with 14 seconds left to give the Buccaneers a 27-23 victory over the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome.
With the win, Tampa Bay took a three-game lead in the NFC South with four weeks to play. In addition, the Bucs have swept the season series with the Saints, giving them an iron-clad head-to-head tiebreaker. Tampa Bay would have to lose its last four games and see the Saints win their last four to surrender the division. The Carolina Panthers, who have lost once to the Bucs but still have a game remaining in Tampa in Week 17, actually have a better shot at the title than the Saints.
Tossing that perfect lob to Stevens in the most pressure-packed of situations was Luke McCown, throwing the last of his 29 passes in his first Buccaneer start. Tampa Bay was playing the crucial division contest without starting QB Jeff Garcia, who suffered a deep lower back bruise a week ago against Washington.
Fears that Tampa Bay's offense would stall without Garcia melted quickly as McCown completed his first 15 passes and helped ring up 285 first-half yards. By the end of the game, the Buccaneers had 466 total yards, the fifth-highest total in franchise history.
Quarterback controversy? No. Quarterback depth? Yes, indeed. Still, the Bucs might not have pulled off the win without one of the more curious calls in recent memory. After a safety gave the Saints a 23-20 lead with under four minutes to play, New Orleans took over at midfield following the Bucs' short safety kick. On second down, the Saints dialed up a reverse, with RB Reggie Bush taking a handoff and starting left before pitching to WR Devery Henderson. Bush's toss was behind Henderson and it clanged to the ground, where DT Jovan Haye recovered for the Buccaneers with exactly 3:30 to play.
"Obviously I regret the play call and it cost us the game," said Saints Head Coach Sean Payton after the game.
Tampa Bay then drove 37 yards for the game-winning score, surviving a fourth-and-one at the 28 before punching it in. RB Earnest Graham, who had yet another outstanding game, converted that fourth down with a two-yard run, then turned a short pass into a 21-yard gain down to the five. After another short completion and a spike to kill the clock with 17 seconds, McCown found Stevens for the game-winning score.
McCown finished the game with 29 completions in 37 attempts for 313 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 108.7 passer rating. He survived a key interception returned for a touchdown and that late safety to win his first start in four years.
It was clear early on that Luke McCown understood the key to success discovered by many past Buccaneer quarterbacks: Get the ball into Joey Galloway's hands. Galloway had four catches for 130 yards by the end of the first quarter and seven for 159 by the end of the game.
While he leaned on Galloway for big plays, McCown also mixed it up in the passing attack as well as the Bucs have done all season. McCown found an amazing seven different targets, including five on the opening drive. McCown even gave TE Anthony Becht his first reception of the year, a one-yard touchdown pass two plays into the second quarter. Stevens had just one catch before his game-winner, and that came on a deflection of a pass intended for WR Michael Clayton.
Unfortunately, McCown's only major mistake of the game was a big one: a short pass near the end of the third quarter that was intercepted by CB Mike McKenzie and returned 53 yards for a touchdown and a Saints lead. That forced the Buccaneers to rally in the fourth quarter, winning for the first time this season when trailing when the final period began.
Tampa Bay's defense was outstanding, as well, holding the explosive Saints offense to 246 yards, including just 84 on the ground. QB Drew Brees had a strong outing, completing 17 of 23 passes for 179 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, but he was sacked three times, including on the game's final play.
Graham finished the game with 106 rushing yards, leading a ground attack that piled up 172 yards and 6.6 yards per carry. Graham also caught seven passes for another 37 yards.
McCown's first drive was a successful one. Running several plays out of the no-huddle, McCown marched the Bucs quickly downfield for a game-opening field goal. He completed passes to five different players on the drive, including a 16-yarder to FB B.J. Askew on which he absorbed a hard hit as he threw. A bubble-screen to RB Michael Bennett picked up 12 yards and put the ball at the 18, but a third-down strike to WR Maurice Stovall came up a yard short and the Bucs' settled for K Matt Bryant's 27-yard field goal.
A 41-yard catch-and-run by Galloway on the Bucs' next possession put them into position for another field goal try, but Bryant's 52-yard attempt was short. The Saints took advantage of the great field position set up by that miss, driving 57 yards on five plays for the go-ahead score. Most of the yardage came on a successful flea-flicker, with Bush taking a handoff and pitching back to Brees, who tossed it deep down the left seam to Colston. CB Phillip Buchanon had tight coverage on the play but Colston leapt over him for the 40-yard grab and Brees hit WR Terrance Copper on the next snap for a four-yard touchdown.
Tampa Bay took the lead back on the next drive, going 75 yards on five plays as the first quarter came to an end. McCown executed a perfect play-action deep pass to Galloway, who ran a post from right to left and caught the ball in stride. S Josh Bullocks tripped Galloway up at the one but McCown threw another play-action pass two plays later for the score, the one-yarder to Becht.
The Bucs padded their lead with a 57-yard field goal drive on their next possession. Runs of 20 yards by Clayton and 23 put the Bucs in the red zone, but they had to settle for Bryant's second field goal, a 31-yarder, when a third-and-nine pass to Galloway came up a yard short.
That also kept the Bucs' lead at a rather tenuous six points, and indeed the Saints were able to erase that shortly before halftime. Facing a third-and-14, Brees dropped back into a well-formed pocket that gave him plenty of time to find WR Devery Henderson deep over the middle for a 45-yard touchdown. S Tanard Jackson and LB Barrett Ruud got deep on the play, but Henderson split them and made a leaping catch near the back of the end zone.
The Bucs missed on one more scoring opportunity to end the half, driving to the Saints' 28 before a Renaldo Wynn sack and an offensive pass interference call on WR Ike Hilliard pushed them out of scoring range. However, after a rousing defensive series to start the second half, McCown drove the Bucs 55 yards on six plays for the go-ahead score.
Scrambling to buy time, McCown completed a six-yard pass to Hilliard and a 12-yarder to Askew to put the ball at the 25. Graham did the rest, bouncing a run over right guard to the sideline and out-running two defenders to the end zone. Bryant's extra point gave the Bucs a 20-14 lead five minutes into the half. The Saints' next drive fizzled at their own 29 when rookie DE Gaines Adams dropped Brees for a six-yard sack. However, the Bucs' next drive led to disaster.
After moving to midfield, the Bucs faced a third-and-10, a dwindling play clock and a thunderous Superdome crowd. McCown managed to beat the clock to get the play off, but that proved costly as he and Galloway were on a different page. Galloway ran a fly and McKenzie sat still, easily intercepting McCown's short pass and returning it for the touchdown.
The Superdome crowd was still at a fever pitch when the Bucs took over again, but McCown still managed to move the ball back into Saints territory. McCown's own scramble picked up 26 yards and put the ball at the New Orleans 40. A three-yard run by Graham brought the fourth quarter to an end. The drive stalled before another first down could be had and the Bucs punted from the Saints' 37, with Lance Moore executing a fair catch at the eight.
Brees got the Saints out of imminent danger with a 14-yard strike to Moore, but CB Ronde Barber's third-down sack forced a punt. The ensuing Buccaneer drive began at the Tampa Bay 36 but didn't go anywhere, leading to another fine Josh Bidwell punt that hit inside the 10 and bounced back to the 13.
The Bucs got the ball back with four minutes to play, but not before the Saints drove to the 45 and punted down to Tampa Bay's two-yard line. Two plays later, McCown tried to scramble out of trouble and was trapped inches short of the goal line for a safety by DE Will Smith.
After the fumbled reverse, the Bucs took over at the Saints' 37. They turned again to Graham, but his three runs left the Bucs a yard short as the two-minute warning arrived. The Bucs sent out Bryant for a 45-yard attempt, then changed their mind and went for it on fourth down. Graham moved the sticks with a two-yard run over right guard. On the next play, McCown hit Graham out of the backfield and the workhorse back rumbled down to the five for a first-and-goal.
A swing pass to Graham gained a yard but forced the Bucs to spike the ball with 17 seconds to play. McCown used third down to throw a little stop to find Stevens, who made a leaping catch over the much smaller defender for the go-ahead points. The win improved the Bucs' record to 8-4, while the Saints dropped to 5-7. The Panthers are also 5-7 after defeating St. Louis earlier in the afternoon.