Bucs Fall to Saints, Nearly Out of Playoff Hunt
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 25 December 2016

Two weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers needed just 16 points to defeat the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium, post their fifth straight win and vault into the thick of the NFC playoff race. That wasn't nearly enough on Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, as Drew Brees led the Saints to 417 yards of offense in a 31-24 victory that put those Buccaneer playoff hopes in a very precarious position.

Tampa Bay won five of its first six road games in 2016 but has now lost away from home in two consecutive weeks to fall to 8-7 on the season. Saturday's decision coupled with a win by the Atlanta Falcons in Carolina eliminated the Buccaneers' chances to win the NFC South and left them with only the slightest mathematical life in the Wild Card hunt.

The Buccaneers will return to Tampa for their season finale against Carolina. If there is a remaining avenue to the playoffs by January 1, they'll do their best to take advantage of it, but on Saturday their minds were on the lost opportunity in New Orleans.

"I'm not going to worry too much about that right now because we just got beat by the Saints," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "I'm not going to be worried too much about that until after we get back to work on Monday. However that works out, it works out. We knew all week what our job was, to win today, and we didn't. Whatever happens after that, that's for the math professors to figure out."

The Saints controlled the ball for nearly 19 of the game's first 30 minutes but only took a six-point lead into halftime. Tampa Bay's defense allowed 208 first-half yards but got sacks from Lavonte David and Clinton McDonald and allowed just two of six third-down conversions. There were no turnovers in the first half for either team, but the Saints got the first one less than a minute into the second half and immediately turned it into a touchdown and a 13-point lead. The game turned into something of a shootout after that but the Bucs could never quite close the gap.

The Saints takeaway at the start of the second half was the first of two interceptions by safety Jairus Byrd. This one was part of a poor sequence of plays for the Bucs in all three phases of the game. It began with the opening kickoff of the half, a bouncer that Josh Huff mishandled before getting tackled at the four-yard line. After a run that lost one yards, QB Jameis Winston tried to hit WR Mike Evans deep down the left sideline but Byrd got to it first and returned it to Tampa Bay's 14-yard line. RB Mark Ingram scored the second of his two rushing touchdowns on the next play.

The Buccaneers had a similar string of plays two weeks ago against the Saints but were able to overcome it. "Much like an earlier game this year, when we have bad plays we have a tendency to string them too close together," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "It was a bad play on that kickoff, then we had a no gain on a run and then a second-and-10 interception. It was just a bad string of plays right there, a bad way to start the second half. It was a one-score game and then right off the bat we make it a two-score game."

After a 1-3 start to the season, the Buccaneers climbed back into playoff contention by winning seven of their next nine, a run largely built on a dominant turnover ratio. In the past two weeks, however, Tampa Bay has turned it over six times and secured just one takeaway. "We played hard," said Koetter. "We played hard enough, we just didn't play good enough today. The turnovers [were critical], as it is in many games, those two turnovers led to two touchdowns and we didn't get any the other way. When you have two turnovers like that lead to 14 quick points against a quarterback like they have, it's just going to be tough sledding if you don't take it away on the other end."

As was the case a week ago in Dallas, the Buccaneers' offense kicked into a higher gear in the second half after a slow start. Winston ended up with 277 yards on 23-of-35 passing and hit TE Cameron Brate and WR Mike Evans on touchdown passes. The running game still didn't produce big numbers, with 89 total yards, but did average 4.1 yards per carry behind the work of Jacquizz Rodgers, who got the nod on Saturday in place of Doug Martin.

However, the Saints' rushing game was superior, with 123 yards on 31 carries, and backs Mark Ingram and Travaris Cadet accounted for all three of the home team's touchdowns. After picking off Drew Brees three times in the Week 14 contest, the Buccaneers did not take the ball away Saturday as the Saints passer completed 23 of 34 for 299 yards and one touchdown.

"We couldn't get as much pressure on him as we did in the first game," said Koetter. "They ran the ball better than they did in the first game. I think we missed Will Gholston today in the run game. Even though we had two sacks, we pressured them consistently in the last game. I thought a combination of us running by him and him doing a really good job of stepping up he stepped up through our rush and made plays after stepping up in the pocket that hurt us today."

The home team got the ball first but stalled out at midfield thanks to back-to-back plays from Bucs' linebackers. Kwon Alexander broke up a pass intended for Willie Snead to force a third-and-five and good coverage downfield on the next play eventually led to a Lavonte David sack. Tampa Bay's first possession had similar results. Four straight Rodgers runs moved the chains twice but Winston was forced to scramble on third-and-seven and he was stopped well short of the sticks. Bryan Anger's 50-yard punt was fair caught at the Saints' nine.

Undaunted by that field position, the Saints moved 91 yards for the game's first point, the longest scoring drive allowed by Tampa Bay's defense in 2016. A Brees strike to Cooks for 20 yards got the ball to midfield and a pass-interference call on Chris Conte took it to the Bucs' 27. Brees hit Fleener on a seam pass for 21 yards to the Bucs' six and Ingram ran it in on the next snap.

Tampa Bay came up short on a third-and-inches at its own 41 on the next possession but Anger did manage to punt the Saints down to their four-yard line. A diving third-down pass break-up by Grimes forced a three=and-out and a flag on the Saints on the ensuing punt helped the Bucs start their next drive at New Orleans' 39.

Winston immediately hit Evans over the middle for 17 yards, and a pass-interference penalty on the Saints converted a third-and-14 and made it first down at the Saints' 13. New Orleans challenged the call, believing the pass was tipped at the line, which would have negated the penalty. The initial ruling was upheld and on the next play Winston zipped a hard pass over the middle to Brate, who broke a tackle and the three and powered into the end zone for the game-tying score.

The Saints took the lead back on the ensuing drive, moving 51 yards on 10 plays to set up Wil Lutz's 42-yard field goal. Brees completed passes of 11 yards to Hightower and 13 to Cooks to get the ball across midfield but the Bucs held on third-and-three at their own 24.

The Bucs took a deep shot to Huff on the next drive but just missed, and a 15-yard penalty on Ryan Smith on Anger's punt gave the ball to the Saints at their own 27 instead of the 12. The Saints used the rest of the half to get in position for another field goal, which Lutz hit from 34 yards to make it a six-point game at the half. New Orleans got a 14-yard gain on a flea-flicker to get into Buccaneers territory and Brees hit Michael Thomas for 15 yards and a first down at the Bucs' 17. A sack by Clinton McDonald and a tackle-for-loss by Conte forced the Saints to settle for a field goal.

The second half began in horrible fashion for the Buccaneers, as Huff had trouble handling a bouncing kickoff and was tackled at the four-yard line. Two plays later, safety Jairus Byrd intercepted a deep pass down the left sideline and returned it 24 yards to the Bucs' 14. On the very next play, Ingram broke free for his second touchdown and the Bucs were down, 20-7.

Tampa Bay's offense fired right back with a 75-yard, 10-play touchdown drive ending in Rodgers' three-yard scoring run. Rodgers started the drive with a 12-yard catch and then ran six times for 28 yards, with Sims also adding a 12-yard carry that got the ball inside the Saints' 10-yard line.

New Orleans had an answer, however, as Thomas took a quick slant and broke a tackle to get free down the left numbers. Alexander showed impressive closing speed to prevent the touchdown but it was still a 46-yard gain to the Bucs' 17. Three plays later, Brees hit RB Travaris Cadet on the run over the middle for an 11-yard touchdown, restoring the two-touchdown lead. The Saints went for two and got it on a draw play over left guard by Ingram.

Winston overcame a pair of offensive penalties at the start of the next drive to move the chains on a pair of passes to TE Brandon Myers, the second converting a third-and-10. Winston hit Huff on the left side three plays later to convert a third-and-six and then got the ball out to the right sideline on the next play for a 13-yard gain to Sims. On the next snap, Winston scrambled out of trouble and threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Evans, who battled with CB Sterling Moore as the ball was arriving. Moore was flagged for pass interference as the Bucs' receiver plucked the ball out of the air and backed over the pylon.

The Bucs' defense appeared to get their first takeaway of the game on the next snap from scrimmage but a fumble by Fleener forced by Alexander was reviewed and reversed to an incomplete pass. Moments later, Brees went deep to Cooks and hit him for a gain of 42 to the Bucs' 14 as the third quarter came to an end. Second and third-down pass breakups by Vernon Hargreaves forced the Saints to settle for Lutz's 21-yard field goal and a 10-point lead with 11:55 to play in regulation.

Winston started the next drive with a 24-yard strike over the middle to Shepherd, then hit Evans twice for 15 yards and a first down at the Saints' 36. A 12-yard hookup with Humphries over the middle got the ball to the 24 but Cameron Jordan then dropped Winston for a seven-yard sack on first down. Two plays later, Byrd zipped in front of Shepard down the left numbers and intercepted Winston's pass to end the scoring threat. A penalty on the return led to a starting point of the 17-yard line for New Orleans with eight minutes left in the game.

Tampa Bay's defense forced a punt but not before the Saints had run the clock down to 4:33. A 12-yard out to Evans converted a third-and-one near midfield. After an intentional-grounding penalty, Winston moved the chains by hitting Shepard for 22 yards on third-and-13. The drive stalled after that but the Bucs brought on K Roberto Aguayo to try to make it a one-score game. He did so by drilling a 35-yard field goal as the two-minute warning arrived.