NEW ORLEANS – Call it stunning. Call it shocking. Call it just plain strange.
Regardless of what you want to call it, New Orleans’ Sunday game against Tampa Bay turned from a celebration into a funeral.
With a chance at securing the NFC’s No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Saints laid an egg at the Superdome, falling to the Buccaneers 20-17 in overtime.
“It’s frustrating, it’s disappointing,” Saints Head Coach Sean Payton said. “We’ll have to bounce back. It’s a loss and a tough one for us. We’ll get a chance to see how we handle it.”
The Saints, who won their first 13 games, have now lost two in a row but can still win the top seed in the NFC with a loss by Minnesota to Chicago on Monday night football or a win at Carolina next Sunday.
Special teams cost the Saints the clinching victory. The Bucs returned a punt for a touchdown and the Saints missed a field goal that would have won the game at the end of regulation.
It wasn’t just special teams, though.
Drew Brees finished the game 32 of 37 for 258 yards and a touchdown and the Saints rushed for a month-high of 124 yards on 23 carries. Despite that, it was tale of two halves, the first of which the Saints (13-2) owned, the second of which went to Tampa Bay.
New Orleans rang up a 17-3 lead in the first 30 minutes, dashing for 203 total yards, punting only once and recording no penalties. However, in the second half, New Orleans gained only 170 yards, punted three times and had two penalties
Josh Freeman led Tampa Bay (3-12) to the win, going 21 of 31 for 271 yards. But it was Carnell Williams on the ground that kept the game close. He finished the game with 129 yards on 24 carries. With 439 yards, Tampa became the third Saints opponent in the past four games to ring up more than 400 yards of total offense
“Even when we got behind early and trailed in the first half, it wasn’t a feeling of like, ‘Oh no, here we go again,’ ” Freeman said.
The fourth quarter turned into the one with the most excitement. It also was the one where the game turned.
New Orleans entered it leading 17-3.
First, Williams darted around left end for a 23-yard touchdown to make it 17-10. Then, Michael Spurlock’s 76-yard punt return touchdown with 2:25 left in the game tied it at 17.
With more than two minutes to play, though, the Saints still had plenty of time.
And when Brees hit Robert Meachem for a 19-yard gain that put the Saints at the Tampa 19 with 9 seconds to play, the game appeared over. But Garrett Hartley’s potential game-winning 37-yard field goal attempt was flubbed wide left, sending the game into overtime.
“I kind of rushed myself a little bit and kind of hit just not a good ball in general,” said Hartley, who until Sunday, was perfect from inside 50 in his NFL career. “It was all me. The snap and the hold were great. I rushed myself. Kind of picked my head up and that was the result.”
Tampa Bay won the coin toss in overtime, elected to receive the ball and after an 11-play drive, put the Saints to bed with a 47-yard Connor Barth field goal.
“It’s hard because all you want to do is give yourself a chance to win at the end,” Brees said. “In overtime, unfortunately, they get the ball and it was over.”
It looked like a New Orleans win would come easy early.
New Orleans forced an opponent to punt on their first series for the first time in a month and a half and then turned the change of possessions into an early lead. Running the ball on six of nine plays, Pierre Thomas – who left the game with bruised ribs – dashed in from nine yards out and New Orleans lead 7-0.
New Orleans took a 14-0 lead after Darren Sharper’s ninth interception of the season set up Brees’ 30-yard touchdown strike to Robert Meachem.
A 28-yard Garrett Hartley field goal and a 17-0 second quarter lead followed that.
But then Tampa Bay came back. Barth kicked a 34-yard field goal to cut the New Orleans lead to 17-3 at halftime.
The teams traded possessions throughout the third and when Courtney Roby pinned the Bucs at the 2-yard line on a Thomas Morstead punt, it appeared New Orleans’ defense was in prime position for another stop.
But the Saints allowed Tampa Bay to convert two third downs – one for 15, the other for 35 – and Williams scored his touchdown. The Saints suddenly led 17-10 early the fourth quarter and momentum long had been shifted to the visitors.