In the last week of the season, the Bucs were still fighting for a playoff spot. Who would've thought that at the start? The Bucs were 9-6 coming into their final game of the season, and they had to win that game to make the playoffs. Even then they would need help to make it in, as they needed the Green Bay Packers to lose to the Chicago Bears (who had nothing to play for) and the Giants to lose to the Redskins (who likewise, had nothing to play for but honor). Those games would be played later on the day, but first the Bucs had to fight a Saints team that had nothing to win in this game. In fact, with all the injuries that had already piled up for the Saints, they could opt to simply sit their starters as they had the year before. For some reason unknown to everyone, Sean Payton refused to do so and the Bucs had to fight a team that had beaten them to a pulp earlier in the season.
FOr once, the Bucs came out the door swinging. They marched downfield behind Legarrette Blount's fierce runningand Josh Freeman and while they couldn't get in the endzone, they scored first with a 43-yard Connor Barth field goal. That was just the offense, though, and the defense wasn't fully awake on the first Saints drive. They barely stood in Drew Brees's way and two minor penalties showed a lack of discipline. The Saints scored on a 4-yard pass to rookie TE Jimmy Graham, and just like that the Bucs were down 7-3.
One 3-and-out later the Saints had the ball back, and they proceeded to tear apart the Bucs defense. In the first game it had been undrafted rookie Chris Ivory who did most of the damage, but this time the Bucs were prepared and he couldn't get going. But Drew Brees isn't stopped so easily, and he picked apart a secondary weakened by injury. That got the Saints to the three-yard line. This was starting to look like the earlier game, as the Bucs defense couldn't do anything. But up stepped vilified middle linebacker Barrett Ruud to provide the Bucs with a much-needed impulse. On a running play off left tackle, Ruud knifed in and separated the ball from Julius Jones. Frank Okam picked up the ball, and the Bucs had life.
Backed up against their own goal line, Josh Freeman wouldn't be denied. He took the Bucs all the way into the Saints' endzone in just 11 plays, despite a weird trick play where Michael Spurlock tried to throw the ball. Note to Greg Olson: don't have Spurlock throw balls again. The biggest play of the drive came courtesy of Maurice Stovall, who had pulled a disappearing act most of the season. Stovall caught a 38-yard pass intended for Kellen Winslow but tipped before it could get there. The Bucs drive stalled there, but Tracy Porter jumped offside on the Bucs' field goal attempt, giving them new life. Two plays later the Bucs found themselves in the end zone, as Josh Freeman threw a great pass to the corner of the endzone where rookie WR Dezmon Briscoe made a stunning toe-tapping catch.
The Bucs forced the Saints to punt not long after, and the Bucs started to encroach on Saints' territory again. A 21-yard pass to Preston Parker and a 13-yard pass to Kellen Winslow got the Bucs to the Saints 24-yard line as the two minute warning hit, but then things deteroriated quickly. Freeman was sacked for 9 yards, then took a delay of game penalty to take them to the edge of field goal range. And when on 2nd-and-24 he tried to get the Bucs back, he was sacked, lost the ball and gave the Saints another shot at scoring just before the half. Oops.
The Saints wasted no time getting into scoring range, but the Bucs held firm on their 25-yard line. On 3rd-and-10 Drew Brees tried to get the ball to Lance Moore, but Moore fell down before the ball got there and rookie Larry Asante got his hands on the ball. That ended the half with the Bucs leading, 10-7. The Saints, though, were still playing their starters and not likely to give up.
And indeed, the Saints came out firing on their first drive as they added a field goal to tie the game. The Bucs, undeterred, added a field goal of their own after Michael Spurlock returned another kickoff for 69 yards. The Tampa Bay defense had to hold now, though, and hold they did. The Saints couldn't get anything going on their next drive, but it didn't end with a punt. Instead, midseason pickup Alex Magee beat Carl Nicks like a drum and stripped Drew Brees of the ball.
The Bucs had the ball in Saints territory, and this time they wouldn't let it go to waste, despite facing a 4th-and-1 from the Saints 18-yard line. On that play, the Bucs lined up for what appeared to be a quarterback sneak. But the plan was to throw the ball to Kellen Winslow for a quick first down. The Saints weren't exactly fooled, though, as Kellen Winslow is basically only in on passing downs. He had two Saints defenders on him at the snap and couldn't separate. But Mike Williams ran a go-route, one-on-one against Jabari Greer, and Freeman threw a jump ball up under heavy pressure. Mike Williams timed it perfectly despite heavy interference, and came away with the touchdown. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20, New Orleans Saints 10.
But the Saints weren't ready to give up. They kept in their starters for one more drive, but when they only scored a touchdown there they said 'enough is enough' and sent in the backups. Surprisingly, those backups managed to force a Legarrette Blount fumble on the dumbest throw Josh Freeman made all season. it did them no good. Chase Daniel can't lead an offense any more than my cat can. The Bucs would extend their lead to 23-10 before the game was officially over, but the Saints were no threat.
That marked the end of the Bucs' season. They had done what needed to be done on the final day of the season, and were now reliant on other teams. Sadly, those other teams didn't oblige. The Bucs can take solace in the fact that the team that did pick up the last Wild Card berth turned out to be the World Champion Green Bay Packers. But that doesn't put these Bucs into the playoffs. For that, they'll have to come back next year. And they will need to be even better if they want to make an impact in 2011.