NEW ORLEANS – Tampa Bay knew its quarterback would have to play well in New Orleans in order for the 7-5 Buccaneers to defeat the 5-7 Saints on Sunday. However, whom the Bucs' quarterback was going to be and how he was going to fare were two questions that remained unanswered heading into Sunday's NFC South showdown.
Although he missed two days of practice before returning to workouts on Friday due to a lower back bruise he sustained vs. Washington last week, Bucs QB Jeff Garcia wound up being designated the third-string quarterback for Sunday's contest in New Orleans.
And with Bruce Gradkowski struggling in Garcia's place vs. the Redskins, Tampa Bay opted to start QB Luke McCown in Garcia's place at the Louisiana Superdome.
Not only did he perform well in his first start as a Buccaneer and only the fifth start of his NFL career, McCown led Tampa Bay to a 27-23 win over New Orleans, improving the Bucs' overall record to 8-4 and giving the Pewter Pirates a 4-0 record in the NFC South division after going 0-6 in division play last year.
Despite the fact that McCown hadn't started a game since 2004, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden went on the offensive with McCown under center. McCown did his part, completing his first 15 passes of the game and finishing Sunday's contest 29-of-37 (78.3 percent) for 313 yards and tossing two touchdowns and one interception while the Buccaneer offense produced a season-high 466 yards.
As well as McCown played vs. the Saints, his two biggest mistakes directly contributed to nine of New Orleans' 23 points and nearly cost the Buccaneers a win.
On Tampa Bay's second drive of the third quarter with the Bucs approaching midfield with a 20-14 lead, McCown called an audible at the line of scrimmage as the play clock was running down. Not everyone got the audible in the noisy and sold out Superdome as McCown's hot route throw into the flat to wide receiver Joey Galloway, who ran a double move and deep route, was intercepted by Saints cornerback Mike McKenzie and returned 53 yards for a touchdown, which put the Saint sup 21-20 with 3:05 remaining in the third quarter.
With the Bucs still trailing the Saints late in the fourth quarter and the defense stopping the Saints offense and forcing a punt, wide receiver Ike Hilliard made a costly decision to not field Steve Weatherford's punt, which hit the turf and bounced several yards back to the Bucs' 2-yard line, where it was downed with 3:56 remaining in the game. Two plays later, McCown took the snap and scrambled back into the end zone and to his right while looking down field for an open receiver. Instead of throwing the ball away, McCown attempted to run out of the end zone, but not before Saints defensive end Will Smith tackled him from behind for a safety, which increased the Saints' lead over the Bucs to 23-20 and gave their offense the ball back on the ensuing free kick with just 3:44 left to play in the contest.
All the Saints needed to do to cut the Bucs' lead in the NFC South division to one game and keep their playoff hopes alive after starting the season 0-4 was keep the chains moving and run the clock out. But that plan was foiled on the second play of the drive.
With the Saints facing a second-and-10 situation, head coach Sean Peyton called an end around to running back Reggie Bush, who attempted to pitch the ball back to wide receiver Devery Henderson before losing control of the ball, resulting in a catastrophic fumble. Tampa Bay's defense, which held New Orleans' potentially potent offense to just 246 yards on Sunday, saw opportunity knock and quickly answered the door when defensive tackle Jovan Haye jumped on the loose ball and recovered it at the Saints' 37-yard line with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Three plays into Tampa Bay's offensive drive after that turnover, running back Earnest Graham failed to pick up a critical first down on a third-and-2 play. That brought up fourth-and-1 at the 2:00 warning. The Bucs were in position to have kicker Matt Bryant attempt a 47-yard field goal to tie the game at 23 and send it into overtime, but Gruden decided to go for it. That decision paid off as Graham's number was called again and he picked up 2 yards behind solid blocking from the offensive line to keep the drive alive.
Graham came up huge later on the same drive when he hauled in a 21-yard pass from McCown on a crossing pattern and took the ball down to the Saints' 5-yard line with 1:00 remaining in the game. Three plays later, Tampa Bay faced a third-and-goal situation with just 17 seconds remaining. Just as he had done all game long, Gruden decided to attack New Orleans' secondary and go for the win by having McCown motion tight end Jerramy Stevens out as a receiver and throw a perfect touchdown strike over cornerback Jason Craft in the right corner of the end zone for the 4-yard, game-winning score, which put the Bucs up 27-23. Stevens was the 10th player to haul in a pass from McCown in the game, and his score capped off an eight-play, 37-yard drive that ended with just 14 seconds remaining in the game.
Sunday's game between Tampa Bay and New Orleans featured six lead changes, the last of which proved to bode well for the Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay's offense got off to a quick start Sunday, driving 56 yards on 10 plays in 5:06 before settling for a 28-yard field goal by Bryant, which put the Bucs up 3-0 early. McCown was 5-of-5 for 61 yards on the drive and hit wide receiver Joey Galloway and fullback B.J. Askew for gains of 15 and 16 yards, respectively.
The Bucs had similar success on their second drive of the game after the defense forced the Saints to punt. On the first play of the drive, McCown threw a perfect strike to Galloway on a slant, and the speedy receiver turned on the jets and made a few juke moves on his way to gaining 41 yards to the Saints' 38-yard line. McCown completed three more passes on the drive, making him 9-of-9 for 115 yards, but his short dump off to Graham on a third-and-12 play fell short of the first down marker, which prompted the Bucs to have Bryant attempt a 52-yard field goal. That kick sailed wide right, leaving the score at 3-0 in favor of Tampa Bay and giving New Orleans some much-needed momentum.
The Saints faced a third-and-6 situation on the ensuing drive, but demonstrated their big-play ability on offense when quarterback Drew Brees handed the ball off to Bush, who then tossed the ball back to Brees on a flea-flicker and threw a perfect pass to wide receiver Marques Colston, who was covered by cornerback Phillip Buchanon, for a 40-yard gain down to the Bucs' 4-yard line. One play later, Brees decided to pick on Buchanon again, this time throwing a fade into the left corner of the end zone for WR Terrance Copper for a 4-yard touchdown strike. That play capped off a five-play, 57-yard drive that took just 3:01 off the clock and gave the Saints a 7-3 lead over the Bucs in the first quarter.
It wouldn't take Tampa Bay long to respond. On the ensuing drive, McCown threw to Galloway on slant again, picking up 14 yards and a first down. Two plays later, McCown sold a great play-action fake to Graham and threw a perfect 60-yard strike to Galloway, who appeared to beat safety Josh Bullocks on the play before Bullocks tackled Galloway on the 1-yard line. At that point, McCown had completed his first 11 passes and Galloway had hauled in four passes for 130 yards in the first quarter. That drive ended at the beginning of the second quarter when McCown sold another play-action fake to Graham and rolled out to his right and found a wide open TE Anthony Becht for a 1-yard touchdown. That play capped off a five-play, 80-yard drive that ate up 2:45 off the clock. Becht's touchdown gave the Buccaneers a 10-7 lead over the Saints with 14:30 remaining in the second quarter.
After Tampa Bay cornerback Sammy Davis' nice open field tackle on a third-and-2 play to forced the Saints to punt, the Bucs offense got the ball back and extended their lead to 13-7 with a Bryant 31-yard field goal with 7:52 remaining in the second quarter. That field goal capped off a six-play, 52-yard drive that took 3:21. The biggest plays of the drive came on wide receiver Michael Clayton's 20-yard end around to the Saints' 45-yard line and Graham's 23-yard run down to the Saints' 23-yard line.
Brees, who completed 17-of-23 (73.9 percent) of his passes for 179 yards vs. the Bucs, responded on the next drive by testing Tampa Bay's secondary deep again, this time with a 45-yard touchdown pass to Henderson on a ball thrown just over the head of rookie safety Tanard Jackson on a third-and-14 play. That touchdown put the Saints up 14-13 and capped off a six-play, 67-yard drive with 3:21 remaining in the second quarter.
That would be the last time New Orleans' offense would score vs. Tampa Bay as the Bucs held the Saints to just 87 yards in the second half.
Tampa Bay had a chance to put points on the board just before halftime, but failed. On the first play of the last drive of the second quarter, McCown used his mobility to elude a sack and dump the ball off to Askew for a 13-yard gain and a first down. That made McCown 15-of-15 on the day, but his first incompletion of the contest came on the next play when the ball was directly snapped to Graham, who threw the ball back to McCown and threw an incomplete pass on the play. Coming out of the 2:00 warning, McCown was forced to call a timeout, which would prove to be costly. With just 55 seconds remaining in the half and the Bucs on the Saints' 28-yard line, McCown took a sack from defensive lineman Renaldo Wynn, which put the Bucs back on the 42-yard line. On the next play, McCown dumped the ball off to RB Michael Pittman for a short gain, but the clock would run out on the Bucs, who had no more timeouts remaining, before they could attempt a long field goal.
McCown was 18-of-21 for 230 yards and tossed one touchdown while the offense produced 285 yards in the first half. Galloway, who finished Sunday's game with seven catches for 159 yards (22.2 avg.), recorded six of those grabs for 148 yards in the first half. However, Tampa Bay failed to turn that yardage into more points with Bryant's missed 52-yard field goal and poor clock management at the end of the first half.
McCown's success via the passing game opened things up for Graham and the ground attack in the second half. After rushing for 39 yards on eight carries in the first half, Graham took over in the second half, carrying the ball 14 times for 67 yards. His best run of the game came on the first drive of the third quarter when he took a handoff from McCown and bounced the ball outside to the right and shed a block from Harper and stiff armed a defender on his way to a 25-yard touchdown run, which capped off a six-play, 55-yard drive that gave the Bucs back the lead, 20-14, with 9:36 remaining in the third quarter. Graham finished Sunday's game with 106 yards on 22 carries (4.8 avg.) and one touchdown and seven catches for 37 yards.
Tampa Bay's defense did a nice job of pressuring Brees, who had been sacked just eight times heading into Sunday's game, throughout the contest, especially in the second half. New Orleans' second drive of the second half ended when rookie defensive end Gaines Adams stunted from the left end spot and sacked Brees for a 5-yard loss on a third-and-6 play, which forced a punt.
On the Saints' next series with New Orleans facing a third-and-7 play, Adams pressured Brees again, which forced the signal caller up in the pocket and allowed a blitzing cornerback Ronde Barber to sack Brees and force another punt.
With just three seconds remaining in Sunday's game and Tampa Bay ahead of New Orleans, 27-23, Brees dropped back to throw from his own 38-yard line and was sacked by Haye to end the game.
Tampa Bay's win over New Orleans gives the Bucs a three-game lead over the Saints in the NFC South division, but it's technically a four-game lead over New Orleans since the Bucs, who swept the Saints this season, own the tie-breaker. Tampa Bay also has a three-game lead over 5-7 Carolina Panthers, who play the Buccaneers in both teams' regular season finale on Dec. 30.
However, the Buccaneers can win the 2007 NFC South division title and clinch a playoff berth by winning just one of their final four regular season games.
IT WAS OVER WHEN… Tampa Bay received a much-needed break when New Orleans running back Reggie Bush fumbled the ball on an end-around pitch attempt, which allowed defensive tackle Jovan Haye to recover the ball at the Saints' 37-yard line with less than three minutes to go in the game and the Bucs trailing 23-20. Bucs quarterback Luke McCown engineered an eight-play, 37-yard drive that featured a fourth-and-1 conversion by running back Earnest Graham when the Bucs were in field goal range and McCown's game-winning 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jerramy Stevens with just 14 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. There were six different lead changes in Sunday's game, but McCown's touchdown strike to Stevens proved to be the last one and put the Bucs up on the Saints for good, 27-23.
PEWTERREPORT.COM'S PEWTER PLAYER OF THE GAME The mystery behind which quarterback would play in place of injured signal caller Jeff Garcia was answered Sunday when Luke McCown started in his place. However, no one could have seen McCown's performance coming. Tampa Bay's offense didn't miss a beat with McCown in the starting lineup, producing 466 yards and six scoring drives en route to Tampa Bay's 27-23 win over New Orleans. McCown played an integral role in the victory by completing his first 15 pass attempts, including a 1-yard touchdown strike to tight end Anthony Becht in the second quarter. He finished Sunday's game completing 29-of-37 (78.3 percent) of his passes for 313 yards and tossing two touchdowns. He also rushed two times for 34 yards.
Although McCown's two mistakes – an interception thrown to cornerback Mike McKenzie and returned 53 for a touchdown and a sack/safety taken in the fourth quarter – led to nine points for the Saints, McCown's performance in only his fifth career start in the NFL and first as a Buccaneer was remarkable. He kept the Saints defense off balance by completing passes to 10 different receivers, including tight end Jerramy Stevens, who was on the receiving end of McCown's 4-yard, game-winning touchdown strike with just 14 seconds remaining in Sunday's contest.
RECORDS, MILESTONES AND NOTES -Quarterback Luke McCown made his fifth career start and first as a Buccaneer on Sunday. It was his first NFL start since 2004 when he played for the Cleveland Browns.
-McCown became the ninth quarterback to start a regular season game for the Buccaneers under head coach Jon Gruden since his arrival in 2002.
-McCown became the 12th quarterback under Gruden to start and win a game since Gruden began his head coaching career with the Oakland Raiders in 1998. Gruden leads all active head coaches in that category.
-With Tampa Bay's 27-23 win over New Orleans Sunday, Gruden became the all-time leader in Bucs history in road victories with 21. He now owns a 21-26 record on the road as the Bucs' head coach, which is one game better than former Tampa Bay head coach Tony Dungy, whose teams compiled 20-32 road record during his six-year tenure (1996-2001) with the Bucs.
-The Bucs are currently 4-0 in their division for the first time since 1990 when they were a member of the NFC Central division. Tampa Bay finished that season with a 5-3 record in division play. The Bucs' best division record came in 2005 when they compiled a 5-1 record en route to winning the NFC South division.
-The Buccaneers produced a season-high 466 yards of total offense vs. the Saints on Sunday. That offensive total in terms of yardage was the fifth-best single-game total in Tampa Bay history.
-McCown completed his first 15 passes of the game and finished the contest completing 29-of-37 passes for 313 yards and tossing two touchdowns and one interception.
-Bucs tight end Anthony Becht hauled in a 1-yard touchdown from McCown on the second play of the second quarter to give the Bucs a 10-7 lead. It was his first catch of the season.
-Tampa Bay's defense sacked New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees three times Sunday. He had been sacked just eight times through the first 11 games of the season.
-Michael Clayton fielded kickoffs if place of Michael Spurlock, who was made inactive for Sunday's game. He averaged 22.3 yards per kickoff return on four attempts.
-Tampa Bay's 285 yards of total offense in first half was the third most in franchise history since 1991. It was also the most amount of yardage the Bucs have produced in a half since producing 290 total yards vs. Atlanta on Dec. 20, 2003.
-Bucs running back Earnest Graham carried the ball 22 times for 106 yards (4.8 avg.) and scored one touchdown vs. the Saints.
-Wide receiver Joey Galloway caught seven passes for 159 yards (22.2 avg.) vs. New Orleans.
STATS THAT COUNT Tampa Bay dominated the time of possession vs. New Orleans, 34:46 to 25:14. … Tampa Bay's offense rushed for 172 yards on 26 attempts (6.6 avg.). … The Bucs defense held the Saints eighth-ranked offense to 246 yards on Sunday. … The Bucs were 5-of-13 (38 percent) on third downs. … The Saints were 5-of-11 (45 percent) on third downs. … Linebacker Derrick Brooks led Tampa Bay's defense in tackles with nine. … Saints running back Reggie Bush rushed 13 times for 64 yards (4.9 avg.) vs. the Bucs. … Cornerback Ronde Barber, rookie defensive end Gaines Adams and defensive tackle Jovan Haye accounted for Tampa Bay's three sacks on New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. … Bucs quarterback Luke McCown was sacked three times by the Saints. … Safety Will Allen and linebacker Ryan Nece led the Bucs in special teams tackles with two apiece. … Tampa Bay kicker Matt Bryant was 2-of-3 on field goal attempts with a miss from 52 yards out in the first quarter. … Bucs punter Josh Bidwell's only two attempts of the game were both downed at the 9- and 13-yard line, respectively. … The Bucs were called for seven penalties for 55 yards vs. the Saints.
BUCS' STARTING LINEUPS VS. THE SAINTS Starting offense: WR Joey Galloway LT Donald Penn LG Arron Sears C John Wade RG Davin Joseph RT Jeremy Trueblood TE Alex Smith WR Jerramy Stevens FB B.J. Askew RB Earnest Graham QB Luke McCown
Starting defense: LE Kevin Carter UT Jovan Haye NT Chris Hovan RE Gaines Adams WLB Derrick Brooks MLB Barrett Ruud SLB Cato June LCB Phillip Buchanon FS Tanard Jackson SS Jermaine Phillips RCB Ronde Barber
Starting specialists: K Matt Bryant P Josh Bidwell LS Andrew Economos
BUCS-SAINTS INACTIVES Bucs Inactives: QB Jeff Garcia (third-string emergency quarterback), WR Michael Spurlock, RB Lionel Gates, LB Jeremiah Trotter, G Dan Buenning, TE Keith Heinrich, DE Greg Spires and DT Greg Peterson. Saints Inactives: WR Robert Meachem, CB Fred Thomas, RB Pierre Thomas, LB Matt McCoy, G Andy Alleman, DT McKinley Boykin, T Jermon Bushrod and DE Josh Cooper.
BUCS INJURIES Quarterback Jeff Garcia was designated the third-string emergency quarterback due to a lower back injury he suffered last week vs. Washington. Luke McCown started in his place and Bruce Gradkowski served as the No. 2 signal caller. Bucs defensive end Greg Spires (calf strain) did not play for the third straight game. Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman, who had missed five of the Bucs' last six games due to a high ankle sprain, was active for Sunday's game in New Orleans and saw limited action vs. the Saints. Bucs center John Wade left the game and went into the locker room with a noticeable limp in the fourth quarter. He was replaced by backup C Matt Lehr.
KICKOFF CONDITIONS The announced attendance for the Buccaneers vs. Saints game at the Louisiana Superdome was 70,009. The kickoff temperature in the Louisiana Superdome was 82 degrees.
UP NEXT The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-4) travel to Houston to play the Texans (5-7) next week at Reliant Stadium on December 9. Kickoff is set for 1:00 p.m. ET.
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