The New Orleans offense took a hit early on when coach Sean Payton was hurt during a sideline collision.
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However, four turnovers turned out to be a much bigger factor in the Saints road division defeat.
Josh Freeman threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns, Earnest Graham rushed for 109 yards in place of injured starter LeGarrette Blount, and Tampa Bay outlasted New Orleans 26-20.
A bad tone was set on the first drive for the Saints when Payton toppled to the ground during a collision with New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham in the first quarter. Payton got his left leg caught under Graham as he was tackled on the sideline, suffering a torn ligament and a broken bone.
”I had a couple of guys on me. … Next thing I know I’m rolling up under Sean, I’m looking up at Sean and he’s on the ground,” Graham said.
Graham spent time with Payton after the game and said the coach was in good spirits.
”I talked to him and said ‘My bad,’ Graham said. ”He said ‘No, it’s not your fault. You’re the one fighting for the first down.”’
The win pulled the Bucs (4-2) into a first-place tie with the Saints in the NFC South and snapped New Orleans’ four-game winning streak.
”The train keeps rolling,” New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees said. ”This a long season. It’s a marathon. There’s no doubt we’ve got to get better. We will.”
Payton spent the second half in the training room watching the game on TV and gave the play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael.
Payton will have surgery on the knee Monday and will begin rehabilitation.
”Nobody ever thinks their coach is going to get knocked out of the football game,” New Orleans running back Mark Ingram said. ”I think that’s the last person you think is going to get knocked out. Definitely different. We had to adjust to it, but I think we handled it pretty well.”
After the collision with Graham, Payton stayed on the ground for several minutes receiving medical attention before being moved to the end of the bench. He coached from there until late in the half when he was carted to the locker room.
It was announced at halftime that Payton tore the MCL in the leg and also sustained a fractured tibia.
Payton did not talk with reporters after the game. He is expected to be at the team’s facility after Monday’s surgery.
The Saints had a chance to take the lead late, but Brees was intercepted in the end zone on a fourth-down pass. Brees became the first passer with four consecutive 350-yard games, but also threw three interceptions.
”I don’t really care,” Brees said of his NFL mark. ”It was all about coming here and getting a victory.”
New Orleans had four turnovers in the game. Tampa Bay’s defense also held the Saints under 30 points for only the second time this season and shut down New Orleans’ rushing attack.
”We gave it away four times,” Brees said. ”The fact of the matter is that will get you beat.”
The Bucs led 23-13 heading into the fourth quarter until Ingram’s 12-yard run capped a seven-play, 82-yard drive and pulled the Saints within a field goal.
Tampa Bay stretched it to 26-20 with a field goal with 7:54 left, opening the door for Saints.
But facing a fourth-and-2 on the 4, Brees’ pass was intercepted in the end zone by safety Quincy Black. The Bucs then put the ball in Graham’s hands and were able to run out the clock.
”We definitely missed (an opportunity),” Saints receiver Marques Colston said. ”At the end of day, it’s one game. It would have been great for us to get the win. (But) there is no playoff seed that is being decided today.”
The Saints’ first drive of the game also ended with Ingram’s fumble that was scooped up by the Bucs’ Da’Quan Bowers and led to a field goal three plays later.
Brees’ touchdown pass to Colston on their next possession briefly put the Saints up 7-3, but there was little to smile about after that as the Bucs reeled off 17 points.
”Mistakes on our behalf,” New Orleans defensive end Will Smith said. ”They made some plays here and there, and we made a couple mistakes here and there. But we still had a chance to win at the end and we just fell short.”
Except for a few misfired throws early, Freeman was solid throughout, connecting with Arrelious Benn over the middle for a 65-yard score and later with Preston Parker in traffic from 18 yards.
Brees was intercepted twice in the half, including one off a deflection by Bucs safety Tanard Jackson. He was playing in his first game since being reinstated by NFL after being suspended more than a year for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.