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.

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About the Author: Eric Horchy

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Bucnut2
Bucnut2
5 years ago

Bad overall game by Bucs.

BucsFanInIowa
BucsFanInIowa
5 years ago

I’m not completely blaming refs for this game, but I think the turning point of the game was the overturned fumble caused by Kwon. I think if the original call would have been incomplete, it should have stayed. But the call was a fumble and I didn’t feel there was conclusive evidence to overturn that. Anyway, we didn’t deserve a W today with Huff’s returning antics and the port defensive play. Still playing for pride against a division foe next week though!

scubog
scubog
Reply to  BucsFanInIowa
5 years ago

It was first ruled a catch and fumble and reversed to be an incomplete pass. It was a good call even though I didn’t like it.

Amo
Amo
5 years ago

Simply put, we choked. Big game against a team eliminated from the playoffs and were beat in all three phases. Thank you Dirk for benching Doug Martin. I’ll miss him. One thing we need is leadership. Drew Brees had his team playing their guts out. We simply don’t have that level of leadership yet. Most disappointing Bucs: Ali Marpet, Vernon Hargreaves III, and Daryl Smith. Most impressive: Kevin Pamphile, who played his butt off and Mike Evans. On the bright side, we play the Jets next year. On the dark side, we play New England.

Amo
Amo
5 years ago

Oh, and Josh Huff is awful.

deeznuts
deeznuts
5 years ago

Lavonte missing that tackle on Ingram on 3rd and 1 inside two minutes was a heart breaker. I know he hasn’t had the best stats this year but that’s a play he had a chance to make.. he’s just not the same this year.

we’ll lose every game with this consistently bad offensive tackle play. But Tandy looks like he could be our starter down the road and #58 Rich homie Kwon ain’t even gotta flex. We’ve come a long way from last years’ bucs but we aren’t there yet

fredster
fredster
5 years ago

Bad game overall in many ways. The decision to kick inside at end with all 3 TO’s was stupid too. Overall though I expected to lose to Saints in the Dome after way they carved up the Cards and way our O line has sucked lately. We are going in right direction. 9-7 is about what I expected his year. To achieve it with all the injuries we had was still pretty good. Whip the panthers and end season on good note. One more good draft and I think we have a playoff team here in Tampa again. I guess… Read more »

fredster
fredster
5 years ago

Meant onside kick stupid ass autocomplete on phone.

GIJoeWasThere
GIJoeWasThere
5 years ago

Brutal loss for the fans, the players and coaches look pretty good with it. They didn’t fight today.

Horse
Horse
5 years ago

Okay, lets all take a deep breath and say we have won 8 games; two more than last year. We have a rookie Head Coach that I hope will pass on his play calling next season to the Offensive Coordinator. Only a couple of Coaches are capable to handle both positions at the same time and I don’t believe Koetter is one of them. Winston needs some help as Koetter the Head Coach and not Koetter as the Offensive Coordinator. Time to pass that responsibility on to the Offensive Coordinator. We have so many key injurier at this point in… Read more »

pinkstob
pinkstob
5 years ago

Tough loss when we needed it the most. The defense and Winston were a real let down. Hopefully they can pull out a win against Carolina.

Garv
Garv
5 years ago

A very tough loss to swallow, it hurts. But mostly because of all the hoe we had just two weeks ago. Season is over as far as the playoff are concerned but this team is not that far off. Give Jameis some more weapons, more skill and depth in the trenches….

But I REALLY hate the Saints! Their almost done too. While the Buccaneers are getting better, the Saints are going to fall. I look forward to it too, every damn second of it.

scubog
scubog
Reply to  Garv
5 years ago

Totally agree Garv. More protection and more weapons for Jameis.

russmillerwy
russmillerwy
5 years ago

They’re showing that they need a couple more upgrades at the starting positions to be consistent winners. Another receiver, another tight end, another offensive lineman. I really, really miss the days when Carl Nicks, Davin Joseph, and Donald Penn formed the best OL in Bucs history. The current group just can’t rise to the occassion and dominate. The front seven’s inability to stop the run at the end of the game was particularly disappointing considering the team had done everything else possible to make up for earlier mistakes. Again, a defensive tackle would have been a better second round pick… Read more »

scubog
scubog
5 years ago

I was a bit worried about this game. I anticipated Brees coming out firing. I never expected them to run so often and effectively. Defense had a hard time dealing with the more balanced attack. I know we’ll all focus on the Jameis interception as the reason for this loss, but he also had some outstanding plays. Rather than seek out blame, as we are prone to do; I want to point out the fact that, unlike last year, this team doesn’t quit. They didn’t play as well as they are capable, yet still hung in there with two of… Read more »