Once-Invincible Saints Bomb at Home
The scoreboard read Bucs 20, Saints 17 at an absolutely stunned Superdome. The rest of the NFL is likely checking again to see if that's a mistake.
Buccaneers kicker Connor Barth capped the 20-point run of unanswered points for the unlikely winners in the extra period, connecting on a 47-yard field goal to ruin the Saints' opportunity to clinch the NFC's No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
A Minnesota Vikings' loss on Monday night will still deliver the top seed to New Orleans, now 13-2 and a little shaken by this sudden streak of mortality. But this performance, this late-season skid, how could this happen? How could the Saints veer off the winning trail so abruptly?
And how could they run into the ditch, wheels up, against Tampa Bay, a two-win team that had lost eight consecutive road games before surprising the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 15? This was a game, had it gone as expected, that was designed to provoke citywide celebrations Sunday night in New Orleans, and not inspire an old-fashioned jazz funeral.
"I think it would be a mistake, really, to point to just the kicking team, just the defense or the offense [for the loss]," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "All of us, coaches, included, have a hand in that loss."
A missed field goal at the end of regulation. A once-overpowering offense that all but disappeared in the second half, which has become a troubling trend. Poor tackling on defense, particularly lapses in the secondary. A huge special teams' gaffe that allowed the Buccaneers to tie the game on a backbreaking fourth-quarter punt return for a touchdown.
"I've said this before ... in our league, it's crisis or carnival, because the stuff in the middle doesn't sell," said Payton, who did his best to douse the sense of panic -- or is it a familiar sense of dread? -- that seems to have gripped the state of Louisiana. "We understand that. We've talked about that before.
"You find out a lot about your players and your team when you're going along well, when you're 10-, 11-, 12-, 13-and-0. Now there is some adversity, and we have to hunker down and get the corrections made and get ready to play a team that's playing real well right now."
That would be the Carolina Panthers, sans interception-prone quarterback Jake Delhomme, who destroyed the New York Giants 41-9 on Sunday at the soon-to-be shuttered Meadowlands. The Saints close the regular season with a trip to Charlotte, to play a team that has outscored opponents 67-16 in its last two victories.
"That's a great challenge," Payton conceded, "but I'm not really too familiar with what happened other than the score here today."
In a hushed Saints locker room, players wondered aloud why they have been unable to maintain that high level of play that carried them through much of a magical season.
"We were stunned," admitted cornerback Darren Sharper, who got one of the Saints' two interceptions of Bucs rookie quarterback Josh Freeman and set an NFL record for most single-season return yards off interceptions (376). "You know you always have a chance to lose, but we thought we had prepared well enough to beat this team.
"A lot of times, people talk about breaks. A lot of times, earlier in the season, we were creating breaks. In this game, we didn't create enough. We just didn't make enough plays to finish the game."
A week earlier, New Orleans saw its 13-0 start brought down to earth when Dallas dominated much of the way en route to a 24-17 Cowboys' victory. That was supposed to be the face-slapping dose of adversity the Saints would use to propel them to the Super Bowl crown.
Instead, they allowed an inspired Bucs team to limit the NFL's top-ranked offense -- which came in averaging 419.6 yards per contest -- to just 44 yards in a dismal third quarter.
Defensively, New Orleans couldn't stop the Buccaneers on third down, and allowed running back Cadillac Williams to gash them for 129 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. Freeman looked like a Pro Bowler in the second half, completing 9 of 13 passes for 136 yards in the final two quarters.
All this, after the Saints took a 17-3 lead into halftime.
"You've got to keep your hands on their throat," Saints defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis said. "In a nutshell, we've got to get it together."
Said Bucs coach Raheem Morris, whose team has won two in a row and may have saved his job with this outcome: "Let's not kid ourselves. They are arguably the best offensive team in the National Football League. We didn't handle them very well early. They went down the field on us three times in a row.
"It wasn't a learning process for me today, but it may have been for you guys. [The Buccaneers] are starting to get there. They like winning. They found that out last week."
Was this a bad hangover? The final five minutes of regulation had all the characteristics of a night after a Bourbon Street bender for the home team.
The Saints failed to convert a critical third-and-7 play at their own 34 when quarterback Drew Brees threw a six-yard completion to receiver Robert Meachem. The ball was spotted just shy of the marker.
Then Tampa Bay's Michael Spurlock -- who re-signed with the Bucs on Dec. 22 after being waived by the 49ers – returned the ensuing punt 77 yards for a back-breaking, game-tying touchdown.
And that, Meachem said, is when this game was essentially over for New Orleans.
"We couldn't convert on third down," said Meachem, who caught a 30-yard scoring pass from Brees in the first quarter that put the Saints up 14-0. "We thought we had it, the refs said we didn't and we were off the field. They got the big punt return that changed the game."
It would get worse. The Big Easy was being set up for The Big Tease.
Saints kicker Garrett Hartley, who gained infamy earlier this season for drawing a four-game suspension from the NFL for his admitted use of banned Adderall prescription pills, could have saved face for the franchise by making what should have been a routine 37-yard field goal attempt with nine seconds remaining in regulation.
Instead, the ball hooked wide left, bringing out overtime.
"I felt great going out there, thought I would have the opportunity to help my team win home field advantage throughout the playoffs," Hartley said. "I kind of rushed myself a little bit. It was just not a good ball in general. It was all me -- the snap, the hold were great. I rushed myself, kind of picked my head up. And that was the result."
Long-suffering Saints fans have to hope this isn't the enduring memory of what has been a spectacular 2009 season: Saints owner Tom Benson, watching Hartley's kick leave his foot, was briefly fooled into thinking the field goal was good. Benson was celebrating when someone tapped him on the shoulder to tell him the kick was a dud.
His wife Gayle was still clutching Benson in celebration when the owner's open-jawed, shocked expression was splashed across the Superdome's jumbo scoreboard for all to see.
Brees, who completed 32 of 37 passes for 258 yards and the touchdown to Meachem, wouldn't say the pressure of perfection had finally worn down a Saints team unaccustomed to the riches of success.
A realist could look hard at the Saints, get past the gaudy record and see that this team has not played four solid quarters since its 38-17 Week 12 victory over the Patriots. Since then, New Orleans defeated the Redskins and the Falcons by a combined six points and dropped consecutive games in as many weeks.
"I don't know if I'd call it 'the pressure mounting,''' Brees said. "The fact is, we need to play better. I don't think we've played our best football in awhile. This is just the type of game we need (next week), going on the road against a divisional opponent that's playing very well."