TAMPA, Fla. — For a fleeting moment, it looked as if the dominant theme Sunday afternoon had changed from throwback to comeback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Wearing the Creamsicle orange uniforms of their early years, the Bucs appeared to have dramatically battled back from 14 points down late in the fourth quarter to force overtime against the New Orleans Saints.
Quarterback Josh Freeman lined his offense up on a fourth-and-goal from New Orleans’ 9 with just five seconds left to play, needing a touchdown to tie. And when his pass was cradled in the arms of wide receiver Mike Williams in the end zone, the eardrum-rattling cannons in Raymond James Stadium began to fire in celebration and the biggest Buc crowd of the season at 58,906 erupted in a thunderous ovation.
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There was only one problem.
A yellow flag lay on the turf as time expired and the Bucs began preparing for Connor Barth’s extra point to send the game to OT. Then came the crushing revelation for the Bucs and their stunned faithful. Williams was ruled to have stepped out of bounds in the end zone — legally pushed by a Saints defensive back — and was thus ineligible to make the game-saving play.
Just like that, the heart-pounding finish turned into a heart breaker — a 35-28 loss that dashed Tampa Bay’s hopes of raising its record to 3-3 in advance of Thursday’s 8:20 p.m. road contest against the tough Minnesota Vikings (5-2).
On the Buc sidelines, jubilation turned to silence as the ruling was announced over the stadium’s public address system.
“I’m thinking about overtime — who’s going to do the coin toss, and how we’re going to do and all that,” said head coach Greg Schiano. “That quickly left my mind when I saw the one official’s hat off. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what that equals.”
Williams, a hero in last week’s resounding win over Kansas City, spoke quietly by his locker after experiencing such an abrupt swing of emotions. He said he wasn’t initially aware that he’d stepped out of bounds at the time he made the catch, but didn’t dispute the call.
“I know (cornerback Patrick Robinson) got a good push on me in the back of the end zone, and I guess I stepped out of bounds,” he said. “…I thought we had the game tied and then see the flag. I thought it was a pass interference call or something. But they said (I was out of bounds). Game over. Next time I’ve got to be more aware and not let them push me.”
It was a wild finish to one wild game — starting with the Bucs scoring on their first three possessions to take a 21-7 lead just 1:42 into the second quarter, followed by the Saints scoring on their final four possessions of the half to take a 28-21 lead.
Each of those scores resulted from a touchdown pass by quarterback Drew Brees, whose first-half stats looked like a dream full-game outing for any NFL quarterback: 20-of-25 for 313 yards, the four TDs and an outrageous rating of 141.7, marred only by an early interception by free safety Ronde Barber off a deflection by tackle Gerald McCoy.
Yet Brees, who finished the afternoon 27-of-37 for 377 yards, had a worthy adversary in Freeman. Following his 328-yard, three-TD showing against the Chiefs, Freeman threw for 420 yards — the third-highest total in club history. He finished with three touchdown passes, completing 24 of 42 attempts with no interceptions and an impressive rating of 115.2.
Ninety-five of those yards came on one play on which the whole game turned.
Midway through the third quarter, still trailing 28-21, the Bucs found themselves with a 2nd-and-10 from their own 4. Freeman dropped back into his end zone and fired a pass to star receiver Vincent Jackson on the left sideline at about the 30. Jackson held onto the ball in tight coverage by strong safety Roman Harper and was off to the races, dashing down the sideline all alone for an apparent score.
But free safety Malcolm Jenkins turned on the burners from across the field and closed the gap, tackling a gassed Jackson at the 1. For the record, it wound up as the longest pass play in Buc history — part of a spectacular day for Jackson (216 yards on seven catches, along with a 17-yard touchdown catch).
But, amazingly, the play would go for naught.
The Bucs tried three successive runs by burly tailback LeGarrette Blount but couldn’t punch the ball in against the revved-up Saints’ defense. And on fourth down, Freeman scrambled to his right and was dragged down for a four-yard loss by linebacker Will Herring.
Coming up empty was colossally deflating. But what made matters worse was that Brees then steered the Saints on a 12-play, 95-yard scoring march. It culminated with tailback Pierre Thomas’ five-yard touchdown scamper for a 35-21 lead with 13:31 left in the game.
The goal-line stand turned out to create a two-touchdown swing that changed everything. And it all started with Jenkins’ all-out hustle to chase down Jackson.
“You see him catch it and the first thing you do is just run and see what happens,” he said. “And as I got down the field, I thought I’d be able to catch him. It was huge to get him down inside the 5 and just give our team a chance.”
The Saints were ranked 31st in the NFL against the run, but sure didn’t look it on the clutch goal-line stand that followed.
“You look at that sequence,” said Brees. “All of a sudden, (Tampa Bay) was about to tie the game. … Then we’re going down and making it a two-possession game. That was a huge sequence of events, a huge momentum shifter.”
Brees, who finished the day 27-of-37 for 377 yards and a rating of 130.1, engineered a second straight victory for the Saints, following an 0-4 start to the season. After an off-season dominated by the Bounty-gate scandal, things slowly seem to be coming around for his 2-4 team. “That’s all we want to do,” Brees said. “We want to get on a streak here, but you’ve got to win more than one before you’re on a streak. Now we’ve got two. We want to keep that going.”
New Orleans got a boost from the return of linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was sufficiently recovered from a knee injury and is appealing his suspension in the bounty scandal. Vilma wasn’t a significant force in limited action, but his presence and motivational leadership — including a rousing pep talk Saturday night — gave his teammates a tangible lift.
“Jonathan is so important to our team,” Jenkins said. “Even if he doesn’t play, him being out there just automatically makes us better. Then with him on the field, he makes plays. He inspires us throughout the game, and before the game. So having him back was definitely a shot in the arm for us and put a fire in our defense.”
Vilma, who pressured Freeman on one play and nearly made an interception early on, felt good about his first action of 2012.
“It was one of those games where I tried not to let my emotions get the best of me,” he said. “I didn’t want to put myself in a situation where I was going to hurt the team or do anything like that. So I tried not to be over-excited… I thought I did a good job. I didn’t have any mental errors or mental mistakes.”
Nor did Brees. After watching the Bucs jump to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, he began methodically picking apart Tampa Bay’s secondary — hitting touchdowns of 17 yards to wide receiver Marques Colston, 9 to tailback Darren Sproles, 48 to backup wideout Joseph Morgan (who broke free from two would-be tacklers to keep his balance and score) and tight end David Thomas, playing in place of starter Jimmy Graham, inactive before the game with an ankle injury.
But the real star of the group Sunday was slot receiver Lance Moore, who continually found openings and came up with key third-down catches — finishing with nine grabs for 121 yards.
“Lance is so dependable — a guy I trust so much and have so much confidence in,” Brees said. “He knows that when his number is called, typically it’s a critical situation and he’s just a play-maker. It’s interesting just how that whole receiver group works together, though. Those guys create for one another. And they each know that their opportunities are going to come and their match-ups are going to come, and we’ll take advantage of it when they do.”
In the end, the Bucs could only marvel at Brees’ masterful work with his receivers. No one was more impressed than Barber, who marked his team-record 222nd start (surpassing former linebacker Derrick Brooks on Sunday) with his 45th career interception.
“Give him all the credit,” said Barber. “He’s been working with these guys for a lot of years. If you don’t pressure the guy and he has time to throw, his guys know where to run to the zone, sit down, convert third downs and keep the chains moving. He does it better than anybody in the game.”
And on a throwback day for Tampa Bay, his throwing kept New Orleans moving forward.