TAMPA, Fla. — For nearly 59 minutes, the Saints’ offense couldn’t seem to connect when it needed to.
But on sloppy days like Sunday, when an afternoon kickoff ran smack into the middle of a summer Florida thunderstorm, sometimes only the last minute matters.
And for Drew Brees, the final drive of the game cleansed the muck from earlier.
New Orleans’ franchise quarterback directed his 22nd regular season come-from-behind drive, setting up Garrett Hartley for a 27-yard game-winning field goal with no time left on the clock.
The Saints escaped Raymond James Stadium with an unlikely 16-14 win and now they’re 2-0, heading into a two-game home stand that could jumpstart something big.
“If there’s anyone in this locker room we have confidence in, it’s Drew,” Saints right tackle Zach Strief said. “That’s just because he has proven it so many times and there have been so many situations where he has kind of brought us out of the brink.”
Brees finished just 26 of 46 for 322 yards, a touchdown, two interceptions and a 67.5 quarterback rating.
If not for the final drive, in which he found three different receivers while calling the plays himself in the hurry-up huddle, the interceptions would have haunted him.
They still might.
His first one set up the Bucs (0-2) at New Orleans’ 35 and seven plays later, Josh Freeman found receiver Kevin Ogletree for a five-yard touchdown that gave Tampa a 7-3 first-quarter lead.
Brees answered that folly with a 56-yard touchdown to tight end Jimmy Graham, giving the Saints a 10-7 lead and it appeared all would be all right.
A Hartley 41-yard field goal pushed New Orleans’ lead to 13-7 before Brees’ second interception put the Saints in a hole. Mason Foster picked off the quarterback, returning it 85 yards for a touchdown and putting Tampa Bay back in the lead at 14-13 with 12:40 to play in the game.
“No matter how well you play on defense or on offense or on special teams for that matter, you make turnovers like that you give them opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have, you give them momentum, you give them that feeling that they have a chance to win and it obviously make it a lot tougher,” Brees said.
New Orleans had its chances, too. It saw five plays run from inside the Bucs’ 10 and all it scored was a field goal. Three plays came from the 2 and closer; all three runs were stuffed short of the end zone.
The Saints’ could have taken a 13-7 lead into halftime. Instead, Tampa Bay had momentum and a close game.
“I take the blame for that,” coach Sean Payton said. “There’s a sequence that took place and on the fourth down play we end up running a play for goal line defense."
Graham certainly did his part to keep the Saints in the game. He finished with a career-best 179 yards and scored his 27th career touchdown, tying him for most in franchise history by a tight end.
The run game, though, did not. Three running backs combined for 75 yards and none had better 29 yards on the ground.
What helped was New Orleans’ resilient defense, which held Tampa Bay to 272 total yards and 5 of 13 on third down. Freeman was just 9 of 22 for 125 yards and a 56.1 rating.
“The biggest thing about our team is we are going to do what it takes to win,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “Whether it’s the offense stepping up, or the defense, or special teams. We play complimentary football, and every game takes on a life of its own. All we care about is winning. Last week and this week were huge wins for us; starting out 2-0 in the division.
“These kind of wins make a team strong”
Yet, it took a stand by the defense to give Brees that opportunity to have a game-winning drive.
Tampa Bay took over with 6:56 to play at its own 14 and began a drive in which it was able to eat 5:50 off the clock. Tampa Bay converted two third downs and edged into field goal territory with 2:24 to play. But three plays netted seven yards, including a big third-down stop on third-and-six when linebacker Junior Galette forced running back Doug Martin back inside to interior lineman John Jenkins.
Rian Lindell pulled a 47-yard field goal left, setting up Brees for his final-drive heroics.
“That guy, Drew Brees, he’s magical, he really is,” Graham said. “It doesn’t matter what time of the game it is, at what point in the game it is, he has belief in us, he has belief in himself, and he knows that. If you give him a minute, if you give him 30 seconds, we all have hope on this team just because of the way we’re built, they way he [Drew Brees] is built and the way Sean’s [Payton] built this team.”