Saints take NFC South win over Tampa Bay Buccaneers
By By Richard Dark / EMG sports writer
Dec. 2, 2002
NEW ORLEANS It's certainly debatable as to whether the New Orleans Saints are the best team in the NFL, but what isn't debatable is that they looked the part in beating the team with the league's best record.
Joe Horn's crucial third down grab in the closing minutes kept the clock rolling and preserved a prime time 23-20 nailbiter over the NFC South-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers in front of one of the loudest sellout crowds in the Louisiana Superdome in recent memory.
The result is now a tight three-way race for the NFC South title with Saints still in third place but only a game out of first. Tampa Bay and second place Atlanta square off next week. The loss snaps a four-game win streak for Tampa Bay.
One may not have been able to make that assessment through the first three quarters, given the fact the Buccaneers (9-3) controlled the game for the most part, pounding on New Orleans and forging a 9-6 lead on a safety and a 44-yard touchdown jaunt from Buc FB Mike Alstott.
The second half was a different story, however, and the Saints (8-4) had Michael Lewis to thank for the huge momentum swing.
He returned the first two punts of the quarter for a combined 97 yards, setting up his team at the 41 and the opposing 20, respectively. The second return went 56 markers and gave way to a nifty 14-yard touchdown catch by Horn, which gave the Saints more breathing room at that point, up 20-9.
Just before that, Jake Reed put the Saints back on top early in the second half by hauling in a 3-yard touchdown pass from Brooks at the 12:56 mark. After John Carney's PAT kick gave them a 13-9 lead, the tide continued to turn as the hosts forced and recovered an Aaron Stecker fumble at the Tampa 29.
But on the very next play Brooks coughed it up as he was sacked by Alshermond Singleton.
Saints kicker John Carney redeemed himself after missing a 48-yard field goal in the first quarter. He atoned for that by booting another from the same distance, to give the Saints an 11-point lead with 9:47 to play. The four-play drive followed a Jay Bellamy interception of Bucs qb Brad Johnson. Martin Gramatica cut it to 20-12 with a 51-yard field goal with five minutes left in the third quarter.
The Alstott run capped perhaps Tampa's most efficient production of the night, a six-play, 90-yard drive.
Tampa Bay got on the board first, not surprisingly, with the help of their defense. With the Saints facing third-and-10 from their own 8, Rice beat offensive guard Kyle Turley and sacked Brooks, sending the ball sailing out of the back of the end zone.
Brooks, who played with a bruised bicep in the second half, had a much better day than last week, hitting on 9-of-25 for 155 yards and a pair of TDs.
His counterpart, however had a rougher go of it, getting pressured, hurried and sacked many times, leading to an interception. Tampa fumbled the ball four times, losing two, Johnson being the author of those. Jim Haslett is 14-0 when his Saints team wins the turnover margin 2-1 or better.
Despite all of his troubles, Johnson was still able to find receiver Keenan McCardell on a 2-yarder at the 2:49 mark of the game. He then hit Keyshawn Johnson for a 2-point conversion that cut the deficit to 23-20.
The Saints then proceeded to run out the clock, setting up the Horn heroics from backup qb Jake Delhomme. The 10-yard slant to him on third-and-8 from the 18 just after the 2-minute warning settled the issue.
According to all involved Horn had foretold the safety the game was over because he would, in fact, catch the ball.
McAllister turned in a gutsy effort coming off a high ankle sprain, churning out 99 yards to top 1,000 for the season, many of those coming in key third down situations. His 6-yard plunge for a second quarter touchdown gave the Saints their first lead of the day at the 10:02 mark. His subsequent 2-point run failed. "The playmakers stepped up and made plays tonight," he said. "This is the team we had to get it started against."
Tampa was poor in third down efficiency, converting just 2-of-14, but the Buccaneers outgained New Orleans in total offense 283-238.