TAMPA - In a year in which the media and virtually every NFL pundit picked Tampa Bay to finish no better than 8-8, the Buccaneers won their 11th game of the season and the 2005 NFC South championship by beating the New Orleans Saints, 27-13, in front of a sold-out crowd of 65,379 screaming fans at Raymond James Stadium.
Thanks to great coaching, sound field goal kicking, a better running game, improved team chemistry and a bunch of hungry, productive newcomers, Tampa Bay flipped its dismal, 5-11 record from a year ago into a surprising, 11-5 mark.
In short, the Buccaneers went from worst in the division to first in the NFC South in the span of one year. Despite having an identical 11-5 record as Carolina, Tampa Bay claimed the NFC South crown and the third seed in the NFC playoffs based on its 5-1 divisional record. The Panthers, who travel to face the fourth-seeded NFC East New York Giants next Sunday, finished with a 4-2 record in the NFC South and became the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs.
Of course, the big perk for Tampa Bay winning the NFC South is a home playoff game next week against 10-6 Washington, which is the sixth seed in the NFC playoffs. Kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium where the Bucs are 6-2 this year, including a thrilling, 36-35 victory over the Redskins on November 13. The game will be nationally televised on ABC.
Although Tampa Bay was a two-touchdown favorite to beat woeful New Orleans, which finished the season with a 3-13 record, it wasn't until defensive end Dewayne White returned a fumble 34 yards for a touchdown with 1:43 left in the fourth quarter that the Bucs covered the point spread, won the game and sealed their NFC South championship.
Tampa Bay was leading 20-13 with 2:48 left in regulation when Chris Simms, who finished the day completing 12-of-25 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns, connected with wide receiver Joey Galloway for an apparent 44-yard scoring bomb. But a holding penalty by right guard Sean Mahan - one of the Bucs' 10 penalties for 107 yards on the day - negated the touchdown and put the team's lead back to seven points.
A false start and a 15-yard facemask penalty against Tampa Bay on the ensuing plays created a fourth-and-33 situation, forced Josh Bidwell to punt from the Bucs' 32 and gave the Saints one final chance to tie or win the game with 2:25 left in the contest.
After being carved up throughout most of the day by Todd Bouman, who was 25-of-37 for 265 yards with one touchdown and two picks, Tampa Bay's defense finally started to get some pressure on New Orleans' quarterback in the fourth quarter. Defensive end Simeon Rice, who recorded his 13th and 14th sacks of the season on Sunday, got to Bouman earlier in the quarter for a 12-yard loss on fourth-and-3 at the Tampa Bay 43. But it was White's sack on second-and-10 at the New Orleans 46 with 1:55 remaining that was the biggest play of the day.
Rushing from the left end spot in place of Greg Spires, White beat right tackle Jamar Nesbit to sack Bouman and force a fumble. After bobbling the loose ball at first, White recovered the fumble and raced 34 yards for the game-clinching touchdown to push the score to 27-13 with 1:43 left in regulation. With Raymond James Stadium rocking, White did an end zone dance before being mobbed by his teammates in the end zone. Then he proceeded to bow to the crowd after recording his first NFL touchdown.
"I didn't even hit [Bouman]," White said. "I just knocked the ball out. The ball bounced right at my chest, I picked it up and I started running. Simeon gave me a good block and the rest was green grass.
"I'm a defensive end, that's what I do. That's what I've been doing since college. I was able to come through with the trifecta - the sack, the fumble, the recovery and the touchdown."
After the game, Gruden reflected on White, who has now made two big plays in a row at the end of the Bucs' last two wins with his touchdown against the Saints and his blocked field goal in overtime last week against Atlanta.
"He made a big play, obviously, last week, to say the least, blocking the kick to extend overtime, and then finishing the play today, basically, was the signature play of the game," Gruden said. "He has a lot of great things ahead of him. He's been trained by the best [in defensive line coach Rod Marinelli] and I think his best times are close ahead."
Gruden also addressed the significance of the Bucs rebounding to become an 11-5 team and NFC South champions after a disappointing 5-11 mark a year ago.
"I would just like to say it is a great feeling, a great accomplishment by our team," Gruden said. "I am very proud of them. A credit to the New Orleans Saints, they came in here under adverse circumstances, obviously, missing some key players and they competed greatly today. We hung in there and we earned our 11th victory. We look forward to continuing the season at home next week. I am really proud of our football team."
New Orleans' opening drive of the game ended on fourth-and-2 when Bouman threw an interception to Bucs strong safety Will Allen, who was starting in place on the injured Jermaine Phillips, at the Tampa Bay 12. The Bucs then proceeded to march 88 yards on 15 plays to score the game's first touchdown. The Bucs were a perfect four-of-four on third downs on the drive, with Simms completing 5-of-7 passes for 58 yards, including a 24-yard pass to Mike Alstott and a 7-yard scoring strike to Galloway. After the Bucs' eight-minute scoring drive, Tampa Bay led 7-0 with 2:52 left in the first quarter.
New Orleans would answer the Bucs' score with a 25-yard field goal by John Carney after a 10-play, 77-yard scoring drive. Running back Antowain Smith rushed for 23 on the drive, and tight end Zach Hilton caught a 29-yard gain down to the Bucs' 11 on third-and-2 from the Tampa Bay 40. The Saints could only march as far as the 7-yard line before settling for Carney's field goal with 13:22 left in the second quarter.
After Michael Pittman returned the Bucs' kickoff to their own 30-yard, Tampa Bay picked up a free five yards on first down when Rodney Leisle was flagged for encroachment. On the next play, Pittman took the handoff and raced through the middle of the offensive line for a 64-yard gain on his only run of the game before safety Dwight Smith, a former Buc, tackled him at the 1-yard line. Alstott scored from 1-yard out, but right tackle Kenyatta Walker was penalized for causing an illegal formation. Two plays later, Simms threw a 4-yard touchdown strike to Galloway, who beat Fakhir Brown in coverage, to put Tampa Bay up 14-3 with 11:25 remaining in the second quarter.
Galloway entered Sunday's game with eight touchdown catches this year and set a new franchise single-season record with 10 scores thanks to his two touchdowns against the Saints. Galloway finished the 2005 season with 83 catches for 1,287 yards.
New Orleans would draw closer with a nine-play, 88-yard touchdown drive. Bouman was 3-of-5 for 51 yards on the scoring march, but one of his incompletions managed to pick up 27 yards as cornerback Brian Kelly was flagged for a questionable pass interference call on wide receiver Devery Henderson. That penalty gave the Saints a first-and-10 at the Tampa Bay 24. Three plays later, Bouman would throw a perfect pass down the middle to Henderson who beat Shelton Quarles and Allen in the middle of the end zone for the score. With 3:36 left in the first half, Tampa Bay led 14-10.
Tampa Bay got the ball back with just over one minute left before halftime when cornerback Juran Bolden picked off Bouman. Bolden stepped in front of wide receiver Az Hakim and returned the interception 18 yards to the Saints' 28-yard line. But Tampa Bay couldn't gain a yard and had to settle for a 46-yard field goal from Matt Bryant. With 45 seconds left before halftime, the Bucs led 17-0.
After a scoreless third quarter, New Orleans got on the scoreboard after an 11-play, 65-yard scoring march. The Saints' drive stalled at the Tampa Bay 6-yard line when Bouman's only incompletions on the series came on second-and-goal and third-and-goal. Before that, Bouman completed his first five passes for 47 yards with Hakim making two catches for 30 yards on the drive. The Saints were also aided by a 15-yard facemask personal foul on Ronde Barber, which helped them cross midfield. On fourth-and-goal at the Bucs' 6, Carney nailed a 24-yard field goal. With 12:06 left in the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay led 17-13.
The Bucs dodged a bullet with 11:56 remaining in the fourth quarter when an interception by linebacker Ronald McKinnon at the Tampa Bay 25 was overturned by an instant replay challenge by Gruden.
"I am red hot now on challenges," Gruden said after the game. "That was a big play. We tried to throw the ball to [Joey] Galloway underneath their double zone and the ball was tipped. The linebacker made a great effort. It was close enough to challenge. They rushed their offense out onto the field. We didn't get a chance to really look at it, but we kind of threw that flag hoping the ball hit the ground, and fortunately for instant replay. I will vote for it again this year, if I am invited."
The instant replay reversal sparked the Bucs offense, which proceeded to march 66 yards in 10 plays to get inside Bryant's field goal range. On third-and-11 from the Bucs' 24, Simms completed a 20-yard pass to Galloway to pick up the first down. On the next play, Simms executed a play-action fake to Williams and hit tight end Alex Smith on a crossing route with a 22-yard gain. Williams picked up 25 yards rushing on four straight carries before the Bucs' drive fizzled at the New Orleans 8. On fourth-and-5 from the Saints' 8, Bryant's 26-yard field goal was good and gave Tampa Bay a 20-13 lead with 7:16 left in the fourth quarter.
White's fumble return for a touchdown made the final score 27-13 with 1:43 remaining in regulation.
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