A week after his team lost by 45 points, Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman showed he’s still very much a player to watch.
Freeman threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns and Earnest Graham ran for 109 yards in place of injured starter LeGarrette Blount to help the Buccaneers outlast New Orleans 26-20 on Sunday.
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.
It also gives a team that is hitting one of the toughest parts of its schedule a lot of momentum.
”Really, that’s just always our mentality,” Freeman said. ”You know, we don’t buy into all the hype. We took a step back (last week) and we just prepare to do everything exactly the same.”
A bad tone was set for the Saints on their first drive when coach Sean 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.
He spent the second half in the training room watching the game via television and gave the play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael. Payton will have surgery on the knee Monday and will begin rehabilitation immediately afterward.
The Saints still had a chance to take the lead late, but quarterback Drew 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.
New Orleans had four turnovers. The Bucs defense also held the Saints under 30 points for the second time this season and shut down New Orleans’ rushing attack, which was held to 70 yards.
”I thought they played great today,” Brees said of the Bucs’ defense. ”They took the ball away four times, which if you do that you’re going to win a lot of games. We gave it away four times. The fact of the matter is that will get you beat.”
Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris said he never worried about his team being able to recover from last week’s 48-3 to the 49ers.
”It’s not a redemption thing,” Morris said. ”I had a lot of confidence in this team bouncing back, and I know you guys wrote us off for dead last week…I know this is a tough team.”
Tampa Bay safety Tenard Jackson, playing in his first game since being reinstated by NFL after being suspended more than a year for violating league’s substance abuse policy, had an interception in the first half to set up a Bucs touchdown.
”It feels great,” Jackson said. ”It’s just a great opportunity for me to get back with my teammates and help us get a win. That was the most important thing for me. I wanted to play well. The most important thing for me today was to get a win and we did that.”
The Bucs led 23-13 heading into the fourth period until Mark Ingram’s 12-yard run capped a seven-play, 82-yard drive and pulled the Saints within a field goal.
Tampa Bay pushed it back to 26-20 with a field goal of its own with 7:54 left, opening the door for Saints. But with a fourth-and-2 on the 4, Brees’ pass was intercepted by safety Quincy Black. The Bucs then put the ball in Graham’s hands and were able to run out the clock.
The Saints first drive of the game also ended with an Ingram fumble that was scooped up by Tampa’s Da’Quan Bowers and led to a field goal three plays later.
Brees’ touchdown pass to Marques Colston on their next possession put the Saints up 7-3 before the Bucs reeled off 17 points.
”We felt that wasn’t us last week for whatever reason,” Graham said. ”We left that on the field. We left it there. We left it in San Francisco. We came out, and we knew we had a chance today to play for first place. We had the Saints coming in. We didn’t have time to sulk about it.”
Notes: Graham had his best rushing game since Sept. 28, 2008, when he had 111 yards against Green Bay…The Bucs have a 24-4 record since 2002 when they don’t commit a turnover…Brees has completed at least 20 passes in an NFL-record 26 consecutive games.