BUCS 17 SAINTS 21
Despite getting the help they needed from Atlanta on Saturday, the Bucs dropped virtually out of the playoff race with a 21-17 loss to the Saints in which they had a 10-point lead with four minutes to play The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got what they needed on Saturday night. Unfortunately, they couldn’t make it count on Sunday afternoon.

An overtime victory by the Atlanta Falcons over the Carolina Panthers on Saturday kept the Bucs’ playoff hopes in the realm of the believable. However, Tampa Bay lost 21-17 to the New Orleans Saints in almost surreal fashion and dropped to the most remote fringes of the NFC playoff hunt. The loss was particularly painful in that every other result the Bucs needed over the weekend came to pass. Tampa Bay is now 5-9, tied with five other teams a game behind the 6-8 Saints, St. Louis Rams and Carolina Panthers. “It will not get any harder than this for our players, our coaches and our fans,” said Jon Gruden. “It was a horrible, horrible defeat today.”

The Bucs’ defense was often smothering, and Tampa Bay had a 10-point lead with a little over six minutes to play. However, two long kick returns and three turnovers doomed the Bucs, who couldn’t get the stop they needed in the closing minutes. RB Michael Pittman’s fumble, upheld despite a replay challenge, gave New Orleans possession at the Bucs’ 41 for the game-winning touchdown drive. QB Aaron Brooks preserved the drive with a 13-yard scramble on fourth-and-12, then completed it with a seven-yard touchdown pass to WR Donte’ Stallworth with 32 seconds to play. “We played great defense throughout the game,” said Gruden. “We have a 10-point lead, then Michael Lewis makes the punt return and then lightning strikes with the fumble on the next play. You can’t turn the ball over and expect any favors.”

The Bucs allowed only 240 yards of offense and sacked Brooks seven times, a season-high. But a touchdown on the game-opening kickoff return and a four-yard drive following a 53-yard punt return kept New Orleans in the game. In addition, the Bucs threw an interception in the end zone and failed on a series of short third downs. Joey Galloway was the key figure for the Bucs as they built a 17-7 lead, scoring on a three-yard reception in the first quarter and a 59-yard punt return in the third period. Galloway now has five touchdowns in his last three games, providing the type of explosive punch the Bucs were expecting when they acquired the veteran speedster in an offseason trade.

Pittman provided much of the rest of the offense, rushing 24 times for 131 yards, the second-highest total of his career. The Bucs ran for 169 yards overall, but a usually productive passing game produced only 114 yards against the Saints’ 32nd-ranked defense and a troublesome wind. Pittman, who has averaged 102.3 rushing yards per game in six contests this season at Raymond James Stadium, broke off a 58-yard run early in the fourth quarter, setting up the field goal that gave Tampa Bay its 10-point lead with 11 minutes to play.

Galloway’s punt-return score, which broke a 7-7 tie six minutes into the second half, was the first touchdown on a punt return for Tampa Bay since Week Two of 2002, when Karl Williams went 56 yards to pay dirt at Baltimore. Galloway’s runback was also the ninth-longest in team history, just edging out the above return by Williams. It was the ninth punt-return score in team history. The Bucs have never had a kickoff return for a score, a fact for which they got an uncomfortable reminder to begin the game. Aaron Stecker, the leading kickoff return man in Tampa Bay history and now a Saints reserve, had exactly 100 returns as a Buccaneer but never took one back to the end zone. His first return against the Buccaneers, however, found pay dirt.

Stecker initially muffed the game-opening kick, allowing it to go through his legs and back to the Saints’ two-yard line. That apparent good fortune turned sour when Stecker picked it up, eluded a gang of tacklers at the eight and cut to the right sideline to find an open field. Ninety-eight yards later, the Saints led 7-0, 20 seconds into the game. However, it took the Bucs’ offense only three minutes to tie the score, taking the opening possession 60 yards for a touchdown. Helped by three penalties for 34 yards, the Bucs gained a first down at the five and got it in on a third-down pass to Galloway. It was the fourth receiving touchdown in three games for Galloway, who missed most of the season’s first half with leg injuries.

Neither team scored again in the first half, which felt like a lost opportunity for the Buccaneers. While Tampa Bay’s defense was completely stifling the Saints’ offense in the first half – 64 yards allowed, four sacks – the Bucs’ offense shot itself in the foot several times. A fumble by FB Mike Alstott in Saints territory killed one promising drive, and two straight third-and-two failures from midfield led to two more punts. Another special teams problem allowed New Orleans to cut the lead to 17-14 with 3:33 to play. Dangerous return man Michael Lewis escaped a gang of tacklers and broke free across the field, getting down to the Bucs’ four for a 53-yard return. The Saints scored two plays later on a fade pass to WR Joe Horn.

The Bucs’ pass rush, which came into the game leading the NFL in sacks per pass play, was hot at Brooks’s heels all day. At one point, Brooks was dropped for sacks on three straight plays, killing a drive that had moved inside the Bucs’ 40. Greg Spires, making his first career start at defensive tackle, split those three sacks with DE Simeon Rice, making the team’s D-line shuffling look like a great move. In order to get their most productive linemen on the field, the Bucs moved Spires inside and started second-year man Dewayne White at Spires’s usual left end spot. Rice ended the game with 3.5 sacks. But in the end, turnovers obviously killed the Bucs, as they almost always do. Tampa Bay is 0-12 over the last two seasons in games in which they had a negative turnover ratio. They haven’t won a game under those circumstances since the third week of the 2002 season, at Cincinnati.