TAMPA, Fla. — Roman Harper wasn’t worried when Mike Williams caught a 9-yard pass from Josh Freeman on the final play of Sunday’s NFC South tilt in Tampa.
Nor were his teammates.
Instead of hauling in the game-tying touchdown pass, Williams was called for illegal touching thanks to Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson forcing him out of bounds.
And instead of New Orleans nearly letting a 14-point lead slip away, it slipped out of Florida with a 35-28 win over the Bucs.
However it happened, they’ll take it and now, after a winless first month, they’re 2-4 an on a two-game win streak.
While the Bucs (2-4) thought they had the score, the Saints knew they had won.
“P-Rob’s was very subtle because most people wouldn’t know that he did that,” Harper said. “It was smart because once you push him out-of-bounds, you don’t have to cover him anymore.”
The Saints gained 458 total yards, including 337 through the air by quarterback Drew Brees, who also tossed four touchdown passes. Pierre Thomas ran for a team-high 32 yards on 13 carries, but also scored a rushing touchdown. Lance Moore led the Saints with 121 yards, including 88 on third downs, on nine catches.
Yet, in a game that saw the Saints and Buccaneers combine for 49 points in the first half, the biggest play might have come from the New Orleans defense when safety Malcolm Jenkins ran down Tampa receiver Vincent Jackson at the 1-yard line.
“That was the play of the game for us defensively,” Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “Malcolm didn’t give up on the play. Chased him down and gave us a fighting chance.”
The ensuing four plays changed the momentum of the game.
Tom Johnson and Sedrick Ellis stopped LeGarrette Blount for a one-yard loss on first down. Harper stuffed Blount for just one on second down. Jenkins stuffed Blount on third down at the line of scrimmage.
And then Cam Jordan chased down Tampa quarterback Josh Freeman on fourth down, coming up with series-ending sack.
“They shifted a little bit and just made the plays,” said Freeman, who finished with 420 yards and three touchdowns. “This is a league that comes down to execution. You can have the best scheme in the world, but if you are unable to execute, then it’s all for naught. Down there we just didn’t get it done.”
New Orleans took over at the 5 and drove 95 yards in 12 plays, scoring what turned into the game-winning points on a 5-yard touchdown run by Thomas. New Orleans converted two third downs and got a gift of a first down on a fourth-and-nine 51-yard field goal attempt when Tampa was called for unsportsmanlike conduct.
But Tampa Bay scored a touchdown with 4:10 to play and forced the Saints to punt, setting up the breath-taking finish.
“That’s all we want to do,” Brees said of getting the second straight win. “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.”
It didn’t take long for the Saints to fall behind Sunday.
On the fifth play of the game, Tampa’s Gerald McCoy tipped a Brees pass right to Bucs safety Ronde Barber, who returned the takeaway to the Saints’ 13. On the very next play, Tampa’s Josh Freeman hit receiver Tiquan Underwood for a 13-yard touchdown for an early 7-0 lead.
The next two series picked up the script of the opening few weeks, with the offense trudging through and the defense unable to make stops.
A three-and-out by the Saints on the ensuing series gave Tampa Bay the ball right back. Saints safety Roman Harper nearly had an interception when Jon Vilma forced a bad throw by Freeman. Instead, six plays later, Doug Martin galloped behind guard Carl Nicks and broke a Malcolm Jenkins tackle attempt for a 36-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 5:55 to go in the first quarter.
New Orleans didn’t panic, however, and took back the momentum.
But the Saints answered in spite of putting themselves in a hole early in the next drive. A holding penalty on Ben Grubbs gave the Saints a first-and-20 at their own 10. Instead of faltering, however, Brees hit Marques Colston for 15 yards and then another 6. He followed that with a 40-yard pass to Devery Henderson and eventually cut Tampa’s lead in half on a 17-yard touchdown pass to Colston.
As the first quarter neared its end, the Saints were down only 14-7.
It took only 3 minutes, 18 seconds, though, for the Saints to allow Tampa Bay to push the lead back to two touchdowns at 21-7. Freeman went 3-for-3 for 69 yards and hit Vincent Jackson front of Patrick Robinson for a 17-yard touchdown.
Again the Saints answered, driving 80 yards for the second straight possession to cut into Tampa Bay’s lead. The touchdown came when Brees checked down to Darren Sproles on second-and-goal from the 9-yard line. With 9:24 to play, the Saints’ deficit was down to 21-14.
The Saints defense came up with their first stop of the day and the offenses rewarded the team with a game-tying drive, one capped by Joe Morgan’s 48-yard touchdown in which he stayed on his feet in spite of Tampa’s Mark Barron and Eric Wright both hitting him in the field.
Suddenly, with 4:35 to go in the first half, the Saints had clawed back from a two touchdown deficit to tie the game at 21.
And then for the second straight series, the Saints defense forced a punt. The 1:53 left on the first half clock was more than enough for Brees to guide New Orleans on a drive to give the Saints the lead. He went 6 of 8 on the drive, hitting tight end David Thomas for a 20-yard touchdown.
After falling behind 14-0, the Saints went into halftime with a 28-21 lead. After eight plays gave the team just 26 yards on the first two series, New Orleans exploded on the next four, driving 80 yards twice, 79 yards and 72 more to score four straight touchdowns.
The Saints didn’t score a point in the third quarter, but the defense turned the tide in the game late in the third quarter with the goal-line stop.
Freeman finished the game 24 of 42 for 420 yards and three touchdowns and Jackson had 216 yards on seven catches.
“He can throw for 800 yards,” Harper said. “As long as we win, I don’t really care.”