TAMPA, Fla. - The best thing the New Orleans Saints can say about Sunday’s game with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is they still had a chance to win at the end of a long, crazy afternoon in Raymond James Stadium.
They had a chance despite losing coach and play-caller Sean Payton on their third offensive play of the game to a left knee injury and hurting themselves with four turnovers that the Bucs turned into 10 points.
But when they looked like they were going to pull out an NFC South road game out in the final minutes of the game, the fourth giveaway of the day with 3:16 to play virtually sealed a 26-20 loss for the Saints.
An interception by Bucs strongside linebacker Quincy Black in the end zone on fourth-and-2 from the Tampa Bay 4, the third of the day for quarterback Drew Brees, turned out to be the final offensive play for the Saints when their defense couldn’t get the ball back.
The setback snapped a four-game winning streak for the Saints (4-2) and dropped them into a first-place tie with the Bucs (4-2) in the NFC South standings, with the Atlanta Falcons (3-3) just a game back.
One week after marching 89 yards to the game-winning touchdown in a 30-27 victory over the Carolina Panthers, on a drive started with just more than seven minutes left, the Saints were in a similar situation Sunday.
The only difference was Payton wasn’t there to call the plays.
He was in his office in the Saints locker room with an ice bag attached to his knee after he tore the medial collateral ligament and fractured his tibia in a sideline collision with tight end Jimmy Graham and two Bucs defenders with just under 11 minutes to play in the first quarter.
“Absolutely, we were there last week in an almost identical situation needing a touchdown and getting it down there extremely close,” Brees said. “All you ask for is an opportunity. Despite everything that happened during the course of the game, we still had a chance there at the end. And unfortunately, we came up short.”
The Saints drove down the field with offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. calling the plays, making four first downs along the way.
But the drive bogged down after a 19-yard pass from Brees to Graham gave them a first down at the Bucs’ 12.
Brees threw incomplete to Graham on first down, then dumped a 5-yard pass to running back Darren Sproles on second down before scrambling for 3 yards to the 4.
On fourth down, Brees was flushed from the pocket and tried to hit Graham in the back of the end zone. But Brees, who was intercepted by free safety Tanard Jackson and cornerback E.J. Biggers in the second quarter, didn’t throw the ball high enough to get it over Black’s head.
“Any time you have the ball at the end of the game, you have a chance to win,” said Brees, who completed 29 of 45 passes for 383 yards with one TD and three picks. “Listen, we’re used to this, these situations where both sides (the offense and defense) have to step up.
“We score, and the defense has to go back on the field and defend the two-minute drive,” he said. “Offensively, it’s our job to go down there and score, and defensively, it’s their job to stop them on the other end. We just couldn’t put the ball in the end zone to get the victory, so that’s on us.”
After that, the defense, which gave up 420 total yards to the Bucs, couldn’t get off the field and give the ball back to the offense for one last-gasp drive.
The killer came on third-and-9 from the Bucs’ 21 when Josh Freeman threw a 17-yard pass to wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe.
Briscoe appeared to bobble the ball when he went to the ground just before the two-minutes warning, but a challenge by the Saints was not upheld, and the Bucs were able to milk the rest of the time off the clock to preserve the victory.
Freeman, who completed 23 of 41 passes for 303 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, was aided by a running game that produced 117 yards and a 4.7 average even though top running back LeGarrette Blount was sidelined by a knee injury.
Earnest Graham filled in for Blount and finished with 109 yards on 17 attempts with a long of 34 yards that led to a 42-yard field goal by Connor Barth that gave the Bucs a 13-7 lead in the second period.
“We gave up some big plays that got us in the hole,” Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “And we didn’t make the stops when we needed to.”
The Bucs also got touchdown passes from Freeman in the second quarter, a 65-yarder to Arrelious Benn and a 19-yard strike to Preston Parker, to take a 20-7 lead before John Kasay kicked a 33-yard field goal on the final play of the first half to trim the deficit to 10 points.
“We gave up some deep passes and had some bad technique,” Saints strong safety Roman Harper said. “The only thing that hurt us were the crossing routes. We have to get those guys down.”
Kasay added a 24-yard field goal in the third quarter before Mark Ingram’s 12-yard touchdown run cut it to 23-20 early in the fourth period. Barth, who also booted field goals of 48 and 42 yards, made one from 38 before the final drive for the Saints.
“I thought we played with energy and effort, and yet the turnovers become almost insurmountable,” said Payton, who was scheduled to have surgery in New Orleans on Monday morning. “That being said, there’s a chance still at the end to pull it out, and we weren’t able to.”