Another opportunity to get above .500 and add excitement to a potential playoff run got away from Tampa Bay.
Struggling New Orleans raced out to a 14-0 first-half lead at Raymond James Stadium and the Bucs never got any closer than a touchdown before losing 24-17.
Sunday’s loss delivers a blow to Tampa Bay’s playoff hopes, dropping the Bucs to 6-7 overall and two games behind No. 5 and 6 seeds Seattle and Minnesota.
The Saints (5-8) entered on a four-game skid and had been surrendering 37 points a game over that span, but quarterback Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay offense failed to ever gain traction.
“We knew what was at stake today,” Bucs head coach Lovie Smith said afterward. “Normally you play your best ball when this much is on the line. … We didn’t put our best product on the field today.”
Tampa Bay now has just three days to prepare for a must-win Thursday Night Football game in St. Louis.
“The message for us is we need to win that game; quick turnaround,” Smith said of next week’s matchup. “When you play like that you want to get back on the field as soon as possible. We get our wish with the Thursday night game.”
It didn’t take long for the negatives to start affecting Tampa Bay. Winston hit receiver Vincent Jackson for a 36-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage, but the quick strike turned into a 10-yard loss because of a hold called against left tackle Donovan Smith.
The Bucs went three-and-out following that flag and Saints quarterback Drew Brees responded by converting two third downs during a 10-play, 60-yard drive that culminated in a 3-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston.
Short offensive series and watching Brees and the Saints move the chains on third down were recurring sights Sunday. Tampa Bay went three-and-out three times, had six drives of six plays or less and punted five times. New Orleans wasn’t so quick to give up possession, converting 12 of 17 third downs for a 70.6-percent success rate.
Despite being outgained by nearly 100 yards (388-291) and allowing the Saints to hold the ball for almost 15 more minutes of game time, Tampa Bay still had an opportunity to tie late.
Winston and the Bucs regained possession at their own 20 down 24-17 with more than 5 minutes remaining. Running back Doug Martin got fans on their feet with a 24-yard run to start the drive but those would be the offense’s last yards of the game. Three straight incompletions – including an overthrown deep ball to running back Charles Sims and a first-down drop by receiver Donteea Dye – led to another Jacob Schum punt and Brees took over from there.
“One play doesn’t determine the outcome of the game,” Winston said when asked about the affect of Dye’s drop.
Two opportunities to stop New Orleans presented themselves during the drive but New Orleans converted both. The second all but sealed Tampa Bay’s fate when Bucs cornerback Alterraun Verner’s defensive holding penalty turned Brees’ third-and-2 incompletion to Brandin Cooks into a win-sealing first down.
Winston got the Bucs to within seven points earlier in the final quarter by cobbling together a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that included two near-costly penalties committed by receiver Mike Evans. The infractions – offensive pass interference and unnecessary roughness – came on back-to-back plays and set up second-and-29.
“I’m a human being and when things that I can’t control don’t go my way I get a little upset, but I’ve got to be more mature than that,” Evans said from the locker room. “I could have cost my team. We went and scored on that drive, but I almost cost my team and I can’t do that.”
Winston completed consecutive passes to Sims before hooking up with tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins on fourth-and-4 to keep the drive going. A roughing the passer penalty against Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro on the play moved Tampa Bay to the New Orleans 28 and two plays later Winston hit a wide open Adam Humphries for the rookie receiver’s first NFL touchdown.
Winston is up to 18 touchdown passes on the year but turned in his second sub-200-yard performance. He completed 18 of 32 attempts for 182 yards and finished with an 83.1 quarterback rating.
The rookie signal caller’s counterpart fared much better Sunday. After being held under 300 yards passing for three straight games, Brees completed 75.6 percent of his passes (31 of 41) for 312 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Both scores went to Colston and put the Saints up 14-0 early in the third quarter.
Martin scored his fifth touchdown of the season to get Tampa Bay on the board 14-7 and averaged 7.4 yards per carry while picking up 81 total, but received only 11 handoffs.
A Bucs defense playing without suspended middle linebacker Kwon Alexander and injured end Jacquies Smith, and running out a banged-up Gerald McCoy at tackle, surrendered its third-highest yardage (388) total of the season.
Linebacker Bruce Carter stepped in for Alexander and finished tied with safety Major Wright for second on the team with eight tackles. He also recorded one of Tampa Bay’s two sacks and two total tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Fellow backer Lavonte David led all defenders with 13 tackles. David and Wright each were credited with defending two passes.
Tim Hightower, taking over for injured Saints running back Mark Ingram, picked up 85 yards on 28 attempts and scored New Orleans’ final touchdown to pull ahead 24-10 late in the third quarter.
Neither team turned the ball over Sunday and it was the second time the Tampa Bay defense failed to take away possession. The other time came two weeks ago in the Bucs’ loss at Indianapolis.
“Things we did, you just can’t win football games [like that],” Lovie Smith said. “Defensively, third downs killed us, big plays really hurt us an awful lot. We [didn’t] make any plays, no takeaways on the defensive side. Offensively, you have to score more points. It’s as simple as that. Dropped balls, missed the field goal, things that cause you to lose football games, we did it all.”
WR Vincent Jackson, LT Donovan Smith, LG Logan Mankins, C Joe Hawley, RG Ali Marpet, RT Gosder Cherilus, TE Luke Stocker, FB Jorvorskie Lane, WR Mike Evans, QB Jameis Winston, RB Doug Martin
DE Will Gholston, DT Gerald McCoy, DT Akeem Spence, DE Howard Jones, SLB Danny Lansanah, MLB Bruce Carter, WLB Lavonte David, CB Sterling Moore, CB Jude Adjei-Barimah, SS Chris Conte, FS Bradley McDougald
QB Ryan Griffin, LB Jeremiah George, DE Jacquies Smith, T Demar Dotson, TE Brandon Myers, DE Josh Shirley, DE George Johnson
DID NOT PLAY
QB Mike Glennon, OL Evan Smith
Paid attendance: 62,138, Raymond James Stadium
Game time: 3:05