TAMPA, Fla. — The game ball eventually went into the hands of Gayle Benson, commemorating her first division title since taking over as owner of the New Orleans Saints.
But before that presentation, that ball first had to deflect off the hands of Taysom Hill, whose momentum-swinging third-quarter play made this postgame celebration in the visitors' locker room of Raymond James Stadium possible in the first place.
Hill's blocked punt provided a much needed spark. Suddenly, the Saints' struggling offense kicked into gear and pulled away for a 28-14 victory Sunday over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"We've all been part of football for a really long time, and you can point back to various games where there is that one moment, that one play where the moment shifts and the other team is never able to get it back," Hill said. "I'm not surprised that play triggered the momentum the way it did."
The Saints rattled off 25 unanswered points after that, erasing not only a 14-3 halftime deficit but also erasing the doubt that surely was starting to creep among the black and gold faithful after a lackluster first half. The Saints had struggled in their previous game too, a loss to the Dallas Cowboys that snapped a 10-game winning streak.
"We just had to get our swag back," running back Alvin Kamara said. "We found it in the third quarter. We are back on track, back on pace to do what we've been doing, and that's dominate. ... The game didn't start out like we wanted to, but we were resilient and stuck through it."
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The Saints (11-2) avenged their season-opening loss to the Bucs. More important, they captured the NFC South championship and clinched a playoff berth for the second straight season. It was the first time in franchise history the team has won back-to-back division titles.
"That's huge for us," defensive end Cam Jordan said. "That's us hitting one of our milestones. We said we want to come in and win the division every year. For us to do what we have to do, we have to do things we've never done before. Back to back is something we haven't done before. We're hitting our stride and putting our eyes on the prize."
It's the second straight season the Saints were able to claim the division title at Raymond James Stadium. Last season, there wasn't much to celebrate, though, because the Saints lost and backed into the title when the Atlanta Falcons beat the Carolina Panthers. The Saints were unable to close the Bucs out in that one, losing in the final seconds.
This time around, it was the start, not the finish, that almost did them in.
The Buccaneers marched 75 yards and scored easily on their opening drive. The Saints, meanwhile, couldn't get anything going and trailed 14-3 at halftime.
TAMPA BAY, Fla. — Forget about the NFC South title, the playoffs, anything like that.
Then came the blocked punt by Hill, the Saints' versatile third-string quarterback who added yet another highlight to his season.
"It's been a long time coming, and it felt good for sure getting back there and getting one," Hill said. "I felt like we were due."
Dwayne Washington recovered the blocked punt at the Bucs' 30-yard line with 7:18 left in the third quarter. The Saints scored five plays later on Drew Brees' 1-yard pass to Zach Line. Alvin Kamara ran in the 2-point conversion to cut the deficit to 14-11, and the Saints never looked back. They scored on their next three possessions and took the lead for good on their next drive, capping it off with Brees leaping over the top for a 1-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal.
The defense was solid once again. They kept the Bucs (5-8) scoreless in the second half, holding them to just 81 yards in the third and fourth quarters.
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Jordan had two of the Saints' four sacks.
"We had to take their best shot and give them a bigger shot," Jordan said.
Mark Ingram scored on a 17-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that tied him with Deuce McAllister for most touchdowns rushing (49) in Saints history.
In the process, the team made history too, repeating as division champs for the first time.
"This is fun, and this is the stuff you remember," Brees said.