The New Orleans Saints saw their flickering playoff hopes burn out before kickoff Saturday. A few hours later they dealt a damaging blow to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ own postseason aspirations.
Tampa Bay (8-7) never led during a Christmas Eve to forget in the Big Easy, losing 31-24.
Coupled with Atlanta’s 33-16 over Carolina, the Falcons (10-5) became this year’s NFC South champion. It’s Atlanta’s first division title since 2012 and ends the Panthers’ three-year stint at the top.
Other than tying the game 7-7 early in the second quarter on tight end Cameron Brate’s 12-yard reception, Tampa Bay found itself playing catch up all day long in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The deficit swelled to its largest point a minute into the second half when Saints running back Mark Ingram made the Bucs pay for a quarterback Jameis Winston mistake.
Winston went deep to receiver Mike Evans down the left sideline and overshot him badly. It was the second play of the third quarter and safety Jarius Byrd picked off the pass and returned it to the Bucs 14. Ingram took it from there, breaking off a 14-yard touchdown run on the first snap to put New Orleans ahead 20-7.
The touchdown run was Ingram’s second of the game and the preceding interception that made it happen was the first of Byrd’s two picks of Winston. The Bucs’ second-year signal caller turned in an uneven performance Saturday, completing 23 of 35 passes for 277 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Winston’s second completion to the men in black didn’t result in an immediate Saints score, but it came with time running out on the Bucs’ comeback bid from a 31-21 hole and squandered a drive inside the New Orleans 30. Drew Brees and the Saints milked about 3 1/2 minutes off the clock before the Bucs got the ball back with 4:33 left.
Winston completed 3 of 5 passes on the ensuing drive and got Tampa Bay into the red zone, but three straight incompletions led to a 35-yard Roberto Aguayo field goal at the 2-minute warning.
Armed with all three timeouts, the Bucs failed to execute an onside kick and never got the ball back.
Playing without struggling running back Doug Martin and a banged-up offensive line, the Bucs were outgained 417-349. Jacquizz Rodgers stepped in for Martin and averaged 4.2 yards per carry while picking up 63 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. Kevin Pamphile, the regular starter at left guard, shifted to right tackle Saturday, and backup Evan Smith took over at left guard.
The Bucs defense had a more difficult time dealing with Ingram and the Saints rushing attack. Ingram picked up 90 yards on 15 carries in addition to the two touchdowns and New Orleans supported Brees’ 299-yard effort through the air with 123 on the ground.
Winston’s second touchdown pass went 34 yards to Evans late in the third quarter and got Tampa Bay back to within one score, 28-21. Evans led all Bucs pass catchers with seven receptions for 97 yards. That hookup also was Winston’s 27th of the season and ties him with former quarterback Josh Freeman (2012) for most touchdown passes in a single season.
Brate’s touchdown gives him an NFL-leading eight on the year among tight ends and ties him for the single-season franchise record at the position with Jimmy Giles (1985). That was his only catch of the day and Brate then got hurt in the third quarter.
Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander followed up his 21-tackle performance in Dallas with 10 more in New Orleans and two pass breakups. The defense wasn’t able to replicate its success from two weeks ago against Brees this time around, though. Linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald recorded Tampa Bay’s two sacks and Bucs defenders only hit Brees one other time.
The Bucs still have a shot at the postseason, but now they must win next week at home against Carolina and need losses from other NFC contenders.