The Buccaneers jumped to first place in the NFC South by outlasting the Saints defense and by capitalizing on the Saints' multiple early mistakes, winning 26-20 after picking Brees for the third time late in the game.
On QB Drew Brees' first pass attempt of the game, Jimmy Graham and two Bucs tumbled into the Saints sideline, clipping Sean Payton who couldn't scoot out of the way in time. Payton coached for a moment from the Saints' bench, the sidelines cleared in front of him so that he could see with his left leg propped up.
At halftime, Payton had xrays and was diagnosed with a torn left MCL and a fractured upper tibia. Linebackers coach and assistant head coach Joe Vitt took over the head coach's sideline duties, and later in the game threw the challenge flag on a critical 3rd down conversion. Drew Brees manned the Saints' post-game press conference,
Meanwhile, on the field Drew Brees became the first player in NFL history with more than 350 yards passing in four straight games. Brees hadn't topped 300 yards passing int he previous five games against the Bucs, but needed to today to keep the Saints in a game that the Bucs took over in the second quarter.
Pierre Thomas set up the Bucs' first points, fumbling at the bottom of a pile at his own 33 to snuff out the Saints' first drive of the game. The Bucs were unable to move the ball and settled for a 48 yard field goal from Connor Barth.
Brees and the Saints took moved the ball into Bucs territory with a 16-yard toss sweep by Darren Sproles and a 16-yard strike to Jimmy Graham. Brees then found WR Marques Colston wide open open down the left sideline, having slipped past the initial bump. The pass arrived in stride, and Colston slipped down the left sideline to the front pylon for his first touchdown of the season.
Tampa Bay followed with a penalty-riddled 12-play drive that only reached the Buc 47 yard line, and punted. Brees missed twice on the next drive, and the Saints went three-and-out. Three plays later, Bucs QB Josh Freeman found WR Arrelious Benn running wide open across the field and threw a perfect pass. The 65-yard score put the Bucs up 10-7, a lead they would not relinquish.
The Saints went three-and-out again, and the Bucs padded their lead with a field goal with 5:30 left in the half. That drive was aided by a 34-yard breakout by backup runningback Earnest Graham, who picked up 52 yards on two plays. That drive stalled at the Saint 24.
On the next 3rd and 8, Brees' perfect pass to Meachem was bobbled into the hands of his coverage, resulting in an interception at the Saint 22. Three plays later, Freeman put the Bucs up 20-7 with a 19-yard touchdown strike to WR Pearson Parker, who beat CB Tracy Porter across the middle.
Brees was picked again on the next drive, this one a poor throw to Colston that was nabbed by CB EJ Biggers and returned to Tampa 25. The Bucs couldn't turn that turnover into points however.
Aided by some excellent play from cornerbacks Patrick Robinson and veteran Jabari Greer, the Saints wouldn't allow another touchdown in the final 33:47 of the game. But inspired play from the Tampa defense, who gave up 48 to the 49ers last weekend, limited Saint scoring enough to win.
A punt that pinned the Saints at their own 2 started the final drive of the half. A 43-yard strike to Jimmy Graham moved the Saints to near midfield, but a holding penalty on FB Jed Collins snuffed out a 17-yard Darren Sproles run. A 31-yard completion to Colston moved the Saints into field goal range and John Kasay was perfect, hitting from 33 yards out as time expired to make the score 20-10 at halftime.
The Saints took the second half kickoff in and wanted to continue the momentum. A penalty on RT Charles Brown for lining up too far off the line helped stall the drive at the Saint 32. The Saints caught a break when the Barth missed a 55-yard field goal on the next drive, and took over at their own 45.
Brees led an 11-play, 49-yard drive that stalled on 3rd and goal from the 7 yard line. A pair of false start penalties, one on Brown and another attributed to Kreutz, helped push the Saints back. An 11-yard scramble by Brees to the Tampa 10 was uncharacteristic but telling for Brees. He had to improvise on a day when aside from playing without Payton on the sidelines, also seemed to be missing his wide receivers not named Colston.
Jimmy Graham led the team with 124 yards receiving, his fourth straight game over 100 yards. Colston had 118 yards including the touchdown, but only 23 in the second half.
Darren Sproles' one rushing attempt that wasn't nullified by penalty went for 16 yards, but it was a quieter day for the sparkplug, who finished with only 62 yards offense and only 13 on returns. The Saint run game struggled on the day, as Brees' 21 yards rushing was one fewer than the Saints' leader, rookie Mark Ingram. Nine carries for 22 yards was more productive than it sounds - Ingram scored a 12-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter to give the Saints life.
Ingram's juking touchdown run made it 20-23, fired by two big plays from WR
The two sides exchanged punts, the Saints' drive stalled by a run right by Ingram who gave up ground and lost five yards. Freeman led the Bucs to a crucial field goal drive that pushed the lead to six points with 7:29 remaining.
The stage was set for Brees, who took over at his own 24 with 7:19 left and three timeouts. He converted a 3rd and 12 with a fantastic pass to Meachem, who was thrown to only once after his early interception-causing failure. Two plays later Brees hit WR Devery Henderson, who also made his first and only catch of the day to pick up a first down.
Another pass interference call drawn by Lance Moore gave the Saints a first down at the Buc 31 with 4:59 left. Brees appeared to be on a roll and ready to win the game when he hit Graham for 19 yards and then Sproles for five yards down to the Tampa 12, when the Saints used their first timeout with 4:06 left in the game.
On 3rd and 5, Brees looked, looked and decided to make a run for it up the middle, but was stopped two yards short. On 4th and 2 from the Tampa 4-yard line, Brees had the game in his hands. The Saints went play action out of a heavy goal line run formation, a fake which fooled no Bucs.
It was a play that closely resembled his late-game heroics against the Texans three weeks ago. Rolling right and falling backwards, Brees tossed an unauthoritative pass into the end zone. Bucs LB Quincy Black easily intercepted the pass, which was intended for either TE John Gilmore Jr or Graham. Standing Gilmore didn't make a play for the ball and Graham was too far away from the game-saving interception, Brees' third pick of the day and a poor one. In all, the Saints turned the ball over four times, resulting in a potential point differential of 17.
The Bucs were able to clinch the game by not giving the ball back to Brees in the final 3:24. A 3rd and 9 pass to Desmond Briscoe was ruled complete even though he appeared to trap the ball. No replay review was broadcast from the end zone angle, which would have give an more definitive view, although referees may have had access to a better angle. It was Vitt who challenged the completion just before the two minute warning.
Both punters had big days. Bucs P Michael Koenen booted a 58-yarder in the 4th quarter, while Saints P Thomas Morstead booted a 61-yarder in the second quarter. Adding a blocking penalty on the Bucs, Morstead's punt moved the ball from the Saints' 25 to the Bucs 10.
Notes: Payton will undergo surgery on Monday... Tampa Bay assistant coach Jimmy Lake suffered a torn patellar tendon during the game, a brutal day for coaches. Lake apparently suffered the injury while celebrating Black's the game-saving interception... DT Sedrick Ellis suffered an apparent right leg injury...