TAMPA, Fla. — With the NFC South title on the line on Sunday, the New Orleans Saints failed to finish their resurgent season in style, falling victim to a Jameis Winston comeback in the final seconds of an ugly performance that cost the Saints a chance at the NFC's No. 3 seed.
But the Saints ended up winning their first NFC South title since 2011 anyway.
A Winston touchdown pass to Chris Godwin with 9 seconds remaining gave Tampa Bay a 31-24 win over the Saints in the season finale, and the Saints backed into the division championship when Atlanta beat Carolina 22-17 to put three NFC South teams into the playoffs.
"As you start the season, it's one of the objectives," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "You look at the division and you say Carolina, Atlanta, New Orleans, it was strong this year."
New Orleans (11-5) now faces the Panthers, a team the Saints have already beaten twice this season, in the wild card round of the NFC playoffs at 3:40 p.m. next Sunday at the Superdome.
"I don't know that it's an advantage or a disadvantage (to play a division team), but it happens all the time," Payton said. "Carolina's a tough opponent. I'm sure both clubs feel like they know each other, to some degree."
Tampa Bay (5-11) has been a tough out down the stretch, nearly knocking off both the Falcons and Panthers in the weeks leading up to Sunday's season finale.
The Buccaneers finally picked off one of the division's playoff participants in its last chance this season.
Using running back Peyton Barber liberally against a Saints defense that has struggled for most of the season, Tampa Bay picked up touchdowns on a pair of 75-yard drives in the first half that covered 14 and 12 plays, respectively.
Led by 71 yards from Barber, Tampa Bay rushed for 110 yards overall, 20 yards more than the team's season average.
"We've been playing exceptionally well in the run defense up to this game," defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "That's something we've got to fix."
The Saints kept the Bucs at bay for most of the game with big plays.
Rookie running back Alvin Kamara, an electrifying presence all season long, made his presence felt on the Saints' first chance to touch the ball. Placed back on kickoff return for a spark late in the season, Kamara answered Tampa Bay's score on the opening drive by hesitating at the goal line, then erupting for a 106-yard touchdown, the longest kickoff return in franchise history.
Kamara took the ball out of the offense's hands on the opening drive. Drew Brees made sure he did something with it on the next series, finding Michael Thomas for a 43-yard bomb down the field to set up a 7-yard touchdown run by Kamara.
The New Orleans defense backed up the big offensive plays with a few of their own.
With Tampa Bay on the move in the first half, rookie free safety Marcus Williams picked off Jameis Winston, and Craig Robertson intercepted another ill-advised Winston pass later in the first half to preserve a 14-13 halftime lead. New Orleans nearly extended that lead after Robertson's interception, but a fake field goal attempt by Wil Lutz was stopped short of the first down.
The interceptions seemed to settle the New Orleans defense. Williams picked off Winston again at the start of the second half, and the Saints appeared to be in full control until a special-teams disaster briefly put the game in doubt.
Fielding a punt inside his own 10-yard line, Saints return man Tommylee Lewis ran horizontally across the field, then got the ball punched out of his grasp by Tampa Bay's Josh Robinson near the goal line. Buccaneers safety Isaiah Johnson picked up the ball at the 3-yard line and scored, handing Tampa Bay a 20-17 lead.
This time, the New Orleans offense responded with efficiency. Working efficiently, the Saints ripped off a 13-play, 92-yard drive that Brees capped with a 3-yard touchdown pass to fullback Zach Line, the first touchdown Line has scored in a Saints uniform.
But the defense wasn't able to hold.
"They just out-competed us," cornerback Ken Crawley said. "We were slacking. We've just got to make the plays."
Winston marched Tampa Bay 95 yards in 11 plays in the final two minutes, then found Godwin deep over Crawley, sending the Saints the No. 4 seed in the NFC and a rematch with Carolina.
"It's the second season, so there's that element of hey, you won the NFC South," Payton said. "Then there's that element of, we've got a lot of work to do here, to get ready to play at our best next week at home."