Bucs march past Saints but still miss playoffs
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 3 January 2011

The Buccaneers did their part. They completed the Race to 10 on Sunday by beating the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, in their house. Beat them rather convincingly, 23-13. It just wasn't enough.

Despite having 10 wins, the Bucs needed help Sunday. To get to the playoffs, they needed the Bears to beat the Packers and the Redskins to beat the Giants. Neither did, but no one in the Bucs' locker room blamed the Bears or Redskins for sealing their fate. The Packers claimed the NFC's final playoff spot.

"We kind of did this to ourselves,'' Josh Freeman said. "There were a number of games this year where we can look back say, 'Yeah, we should have won that game.' ''

The Bucs' loss to the Lions three weeks ago was one of those. Their two losses to the Falcons included one in which they failed to score a late go-ahead touchdown on a fourth-and-1 play from the Atlanta 2-yard line and another in which they blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead at home. "I can still be proud of what we did this year," left tackle Donald Penn said.

"No one believed in us. Everybody doubted us and when we came out with the Race to 10, everybody kind of laughed at us. But we knew we could get there, and the way we're going with Josh as our quarterback, I don't think we'll ever have another season like last year.''

The Bucs went 3-13 during Coach Raheem Morris' rookie season in 2009 and the decision to rebuild primarily through the draft left many thinking the team would struggle to play .500 ball in 2010. At 10-6, the Bucs' seven-game improvement from 3-13 was the greatest in franchise history, one better than the turnaround from 5-11 in 2004 to 11-5 in 2005 under former coach Jon Gruden.

A 3-1 start gave the Bucs the momentum necessary to overcome a rash of injuries that robbed them of seven starters and forced them to play with untried rookies from the bottom of the roster filling key roles.

"The fact that these young guys were able to play so well is a testament to them and to Raheem and his system,'' veteran cornerback Ronde Barber said. "Raheem has a belief that no matter who's in there, his system is going to work, and I think we proved that again (Sunday).''

Rookie Larry Asante provided the best evidence. In only his second NFL game, he intercepted Saints quarterback Drew Brees at the Bucs' 4-yard line to end what could have been a game-changing drive just before halftime and preserve a 10-7 lead.

Rookie defensive tackle Frank Okam recovered a fumble at the Bucs' 4-yard line to end an earlier Saints drive and set the stage for a Bucs touchdown by rookie Dezmon Briscoe. "It's been like that all year for us,'' Barber said. "A lot of guys stepped up this year that no one expected to even see way back in August. But those guys, a lot of them, they're talented, and they're dangerous.''

Few are more dangerous than rookie running back LeGarrette Blount, the undrafted former Oregon standout who reached the 1,000-yard mark Sunday by running 19 times for 66 yards. The Bucs are hoping Blount or fellow rookie receiver Mike Williams will win the NFC's Rookie of the Year award, and Williams did his part to win some votes Sunday by catching his 11th touchdown pass of the year.

The score, which gave the Bucs a 20-10 lead, came late in the third quarter on fourth-and-1 from the Saints' 18-yard line. Freeman faked a quarterback sneak, dropped back and threw a jump ball to Williams, who outleaped cornerback Jabari Greer in the end zone.

"We'd been sneaking in that situation all year,'' Penn said of the play, which was designed to go to tight end Kellen Winslow. "But those guys took (Winslow) out and Josh knew he had just one more open route and so he just dropped back and launched it. That was a great play.''

Freeman made several of those Sunday, completing 21 of 26 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns and finishing with a 133.2 passer rating that was nearly double that posted by Brees (69.6).

The two scoring passes gave Freeman 25 for the season to go with just six interceptions. The latter mark set a team record for fewest interceptions in a season, and while Freeman was happy to set that after throwing 18 picks as a rookie, he wasn't completely satisfied.

"We didn't turn the ball over nearly as much as we did last year, and that was a big part of our success,'' he said. "But (not making the playoffs) is rough. We had a good team this year and you hate to have to say goodbye now. Ten wins was what we were trying for, but next year we definitely want to try to be in the driver's seat going into this situation.''