The last time the Bucs won five straight, the rest of the season went pretty well.
That year was 2002 and that team won Tampa Bay’s first and only Super Bowl title. This team has work to do to get to that level, but they’re on the right path.
The Bucs never trailed Sunday and picked up its fifth win in a row by keeping the New Orleans Saints at arm’s length until the clock hit triple zeros. And for the second week in a row, it was backup-turned-starter Keith Tandy sealing the victory with a late-game interception.
Clinging to a 16-11 lead with less than a minute remaining, Tandy stepped in front of a Drew Brees pass at midfield and set up a raucous celebration on the field and in the stands. Starting in place of injured strong safety Chris Conte, Tandy nabbed San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers with about three minutes to go.
Sunday’s win improved Tampa Bay to 3-4 at home and allowed the Bucs to keep pace with the Atlanta Falcons atop the NFC South standings at 8-5. The Falcons smashed the Los Angeles Rams, 42-14.
Appearing to have all the makings of a high-scoring shootout between quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Brees, Sunday ended up being a battle of field position played between the 20s.
Neither team managed to crack 300 yards of total offense, with New Orleans edging Tampa Bay, 294-270. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that the Bucs held the Saints to just three Will Lutz field goals and a safety. It was the first time in 22 career games against Tampa Bay that Brees didn’t get at least one touchdown.
What the Bucs defense also did to Brees was make life miserable for a second straight week. The future Hall of Famer matched a couple numbers from last week’s loss against Detroit that he wishes he didn’t – zero touchdowns and three interceptions.
Prior to Tandy’s game-sealer, the Bucs recorded a pair of tip-drill interceptions. The first came early in the second quarter when linebacker Kwon Alexander got his hand on a pass and rookie Vernon Hargreaves III secured his first career pick as a pro. The defense struck again early in the third quarter and it was Tandy that tipped a ball for cornerback Brent Grimes to grab his third interception.
As good as Tampa Bay’s defense looked at the end of the game in relation to the Saints’ lack of offensive productivity, it was even better early on. New Orleans managed just 11 net yards in the first quarter and it didn’t get its initial first down until a facemask penalty against Bucs linebacker Lavonte David early in the second quarter. Three snaps after that infraction, Hargreaves was intercepting Brees and helping set up kicker Roberto Aguayo’s second of three field goals.
That second converted kick put Tampa Bay up 13-0 with 8:26 left in the second quarter. The Bucs were well on their way to an easy win – until they weren’t.
A big reason for that was Tampa Bay’s struggles to maximize scoring opportunities by stalling out deep in New Orleans’ end of the field. The Bucs’ opened Sunday’s scoring on their second drive with a 41-yard Aguayo field goal, but they had a first down at the 23. The field goal drive following Hargreaves’ pick stalled out at the 21 after a failed third-and-1 attempt.
Tampa Bay’s lone touchdown of the day came when running back Doug Martin dived across the goal line from a yard out early in the second quarter to pull ahead 10-0.
The reliance on field goals instead of touchdowns started to look more and more troubling as the game progressed. Beginning with a 42-yard Lutz field goal in the second quarter, New Orleans scored the next 11 points and got within two points at 13-11 late in the third.
A critical moment in that swing of momentum came Lutz’s initial field goal. New return man Josh Huff let a short kickoff bouncing toward the left corner of the end zone hit him in the facemask and go out of bounds at the half yard line. The Bucs tried to run up the middle with Martin and the Saints stuffed him for a safety. That came with 5:20 left in the half and New Orleans drained the clock on its ensuing field goal drive.
While Huff did the Bucs offense no favors with his blunder, it was Tampa Bay punter Bryan Anger’s success pinning the Brees and the Saints back deep that played an even bigger role in the 16-11 win. Two of Angers’ four punts didn’t just land inside the 20, they were inside the 5 in the fourth quarter.
The Bucs needed all the defense and special teams help they could get on a day where little went right offensively. Of the team’s 270 total net yards, only 104 came after halftime.
Winston completed 16 of 26 passes for 184 yards and failed to throw a touchdown for the second time this season. What the second-year pro also didn’t do, however, was throw an interception. The Bucs didn’t commit a single turnover and won that battle inside the battle, 3-0.
Although the Saints entered Sunday with the league’s 26th ranked defense, the unit’s held its 12 previous opponents to an average of 97.9 yards rushing. True to form, the Bucs didn’t find much room to run. New Orleans bottled up Martin for 66 yards and the touchdown on 23 carries (2.9-yard average) and Tampa Bay finished with 104 on 35 attempts.
Tight end Cameron Brate finished as the team’s leading receiver with four catches for 47 yards, followed up by receiver Mike Evans’ four-catch, 42-yard day.
These two teams will tangle again on Christmas Eve in New Orleans after the Bucs travel to take on the Dallas Cowboys next weekend. Tampa Bay’s season wraps up with a home date against the Carolina Panthers.