The Saints conceded the final game of the 2010 regular season to the fired-up Bucs, taking starting QB Drew Brees out of the game with just over nine minutes left.
Many other Saints starters were withheld from this game or left early. The Saints deactivated Marques Colston, Jeremy Shockey and Pierre Thomas, then saw more players hit the bench with injury, including RB Chris Ivory, FS Malcolm Jenkins and TE Jimmy Graham.
Brees guided the Saints to a touchdown on the opening drive, hitting Graham for a quick fade touchdown and a 7-3 lead in the first quarter. Graham left the game after that, possibly suffering a left ankle injury several plays before on a successful third down conversion.
Brees and the offense were hot early on, converting five straight third down conversions. But the next three third down attempts helped to swing the momentum permanently in Tampa's favor. On their second drive, early in the second quarter, RB Julius Jones fumbled the ball at the Tampa goal line, with the Bucs recovering at their own four yard line.
Young quarterback Josh Freeman, a rising star in the NFL, turned Jones' mistake into a 96 yard touchdown drive, the longest drive the Saints have allowed against them this season. Freeman converted a big 3rd and 3 by rolling to his left and finding rookie WR Mike Wiliams open against CB Jabari Greer, then caught a very fortunate break by having a downfield tipped pass carom into the arms of WR Maurice Stovall, who was chased down after a 38-yard gain.
Then, after being stopped on 3rd and short at the Saint 19, CB Tracy Porter jumped offsides on a field goal attempt. Bucs HC Raheem Morris took points off the board and took the first down. WR Preston Parker picked up 12 on a quick hit and run. Then WR Desmond Briscoe made an outstanding, diving catch at the back corner on a fade route, beating Greer for the touchdown. Both Briscoe's catch, his first score of the season, and Freeman's throw were outstanding. The Bucs were up 10-7 with 6:45 left in the half.
On the next drive, Brees fired deep incomplete for Devery Henderson on third down, setting up a punt. Freeman got the Bucs moving again, taking 8 plays to move to the Saint 33. That was when DE Jeff Charleston made his second huge strip in as many weeks. Charleston collected the trifecta - the sack, forced fumble and recovery to snuff out that Bucs scoring drive.
Brees wanted to move into scoring position himself, firing seven straight passes. The Saints picked up a first down thanks to a defensive holding call on the Bucs, but at the Buc 25 yard line Brees found himself at another third down. He fired for Lance Moore, who was tripped by incidental contact and fell. The pass sailed straight to Larry Asante, who snuffed out that scoring drive. Freeman kneeled away the final seconds of the half. After converting each of their first five third down, the Saints would convert on only three of their next eleven third down conversions.
The offense got back on track with the first drive of the second half, with Brees hitting WR Adrian Arrington for a 17-yard gain on 3rd and 3. Arrington saw his first NFL action today and led the team with 7 catches for 79 yards, showing much of the promise he has displayed in past exhibition games.
Brees and the offense stalled inside the Buc 30 and Garrett Hartley came in for a 45 yard field goal to tie the score at 10.
Michael Spurlock found a lane, likely thanks to poor lane coverage by rookie CB Patrick Robinson, and took the kickoff back 69 yards before Thomas Morstead wrestled him out of bounds. The Saints defense held, a small victory in holding Freeman back and forcing a long field goal attempt, which Connor Barth hit from 32 yards out.
On the Saints' next drive, down 13-10, would be ended by a sack fumble on Brees from fellow Boilermaker alum DE Alex Magee in Saints territory. Freeman struck fast, scrambling up the right sideline for 11 yards. The Saints defense would hold on a 3rd and 7, limiting Kellen Winslow, Jr. to a six yard gain on one of only three catches for the talented tight end on the day. On 4th and short, Freeman scrambled backwards and lofted up a desperation pass to the end zone, where rookie WR Mike Williams out-jumped Jabari Greer for the ball and the touchdown.
Reggie Bush saw some good running action on the next drive, part of a statistically positive day for him as he looked to be close to full speed. Bush rushed for 70 yards on 9 carries, and picked up 55 yards on 5 carries. He ripped of a 23-yard burst up the middle to respond to the touchdown. Then on a sack, Bucs DT Roy Miller would be flagged for a facemask on Brees, turning a seven yard loss into a 15 yard gain. Bush caught a nifty 20-yard shoulder pass at the sideline, and a strike to Adrian Arrington moved the Saints to the Buc 15.
A holding call on Jon Stinchcomb and a questionable non-call for interference TE Tory Humphrey in the end zone snuffed out the drive, forcing a 38-yard field goal from Hartley, the Saints' final points with 11:21. Those would be Brees' final snaps of the game.
The Saints got the ball back when DE Alex Brown, who re-entered the game despite a minor shoulder injury, forced a fumble from LeGarrette Blount, recovered by LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Both Dunbar and Danny Clark were available to play today for the Saints at strongside linebacker.
Chase Daniel entered the game after that, hitting his preseason buddy Arrington for a seven-yard bootleg out pass with his first NFL pass attempt. Two plays later, Daniel's pitch left went off Bush's outstretched fingers for a big loss, killing that drive and forcing a punt. Freeman would move the Bucs again for another field goal, making it 23-13.
Daniel got some help from Reggie Bush with a 10-yard scamper, and he found Adrian Arrington for a nine yard gain on the next first down. But a no gainer by Bush and an incomplete pass to Bush forced 4th and 1 from near midfield with 2:08. The Saints officially ceded the game to the Bucs by punting there.
With the Falcons up big, the Saints had nothing to gain from competing in the game in the second half, though they continued to play Brees longer than necessary. The Bucs fought hard to keep their slim playoff chances alive, and credit Morris and Freeman for good games.
More troubling for the Saints, who are locked into the #5 seed and the winner of the St. Louis/Seattle game tonight, are the injuries picked up. Especially problematic would be Malcolm Jenkins' injury, which would force Darren Sharper into a full time starting role, a job that Jenkins won again and again as the season went on.
Brees admitted after the game that the Saints withheld a number of players that would have played or continued to play had the game been meaningful.