The Tampa Bay Buccaneers dropped a spot back in the race for the NFC South after a tough loss last Sunday night in Dallas. The young Bucs proved on a national stage they have what it takes to compete with the best teams in the league, but turnovers and poor execution down the stretch ultimately doomed their chances. They got on the board first after taking advantage of a missed Dallas field goal. A pass interference call was awarded to receiver Mike Evans, and kicker Roberto Aguayo knocked in a 25 yard field goal late in the first quarter to give them a 3-0 lead. But they started putting themselves behind the 8-ball early in the second quarter when QB Jameis Winston’s arm was hit before he threw the ball, and he lost a fumble. The Cowboys capitalized with two 2 yard rushing touchdowns by their two rookie standouts, and the Bucs found themselves down 17-6 at the half. But in the 3rd quarter, Winston and the young Bucs got rolling. The came storming out of the half, converting on crucial 3rd downs to keep their drive alive. On a 3rd & short from midfield, Winston rolled left on a bootleg and fired the ball across his body to his receiver who was double-covered. A Dallas defender deflected the pass, but it fell right into the hands of receiver Adam Humphries, who corralled the ball and fell into the endzone for a 42 yard touchdown. Winston continued to dazzle in throughout the 3rd quarter, making great throws including one to his always-reliable tight end Cameron Brate who made a great one-handed catch at midfield. Winston went back to Brate on 3rd down after he scrambled out of the pocket, pump faked a defender and somehow found Brate in the middle of the field, and he dragged defenders down inside the 25. Brate completed the hat trick on the drive when Winston went back to him again, and Brate came down with the catch in double coverage for a 10 yard touchdown to take a 20-17 lead. But those were the last points the Bucs would score, and Dallas dominated them in the 4th quarter. The Bucs failed to stop Dallas’ run game that continued to gouge them every time they handed the ball off. Winston was under constant pressure in the 4th – his elbow was hit as he tried to throw the ball downfield, causing an errant throw that was picked off. The defense did their best to give the offense chances to win the game, holding Dallas to field goals and even forcing a turnover. Linebacker Kwon Alexander punched the ball away from Jason Witten with an impressive hit, and Lavonte David recovered. But the offense continued to sputter. They had the ball twice in the final three minutes with opportunities to win the game, but Winston was pressured and any time he had time, he missed his receivers by a few inches on passes that would have led to big gains downfield. As refreshing as it was to see the Bucs finally able to compete in this league, they have to shake off that loss and find a win to get a win on the road in New Orleans if they plan to keep their postseason hopes alive.
The Saints added evidence to the case to keep Sean Payton as head coach after a complete team win on the road in Arizona. After falling behind early, the defense forced a fumble and linebacker Craig & ’em Robinson recovered to give the offense great field position. Drew Brees connected with running back Travaris Cadet in the flat, who dove into the endzone to give the Saints the lead. Disaster struck in the middle of the second quarter when Brees was sacked, lost the football, and the Cardinals scooped the ball up and ran it in for a defensive touchdown. But Brees got his revenge just two plays later on a play action pass, he found Brandin Cooks (7 catches 186 yards 2 TDs) for a 65 yard touchdown to re-gain the lead. We experienced deja vu before the end of the half when Brees and Cook reunited for a quick completion in the middle of the field but Cooks turned upfield along the right sideline, then turned on the burners and no one could catch him, extending their lead to 24-13. But the Saints had to put their woeful defense back on the field before the half and they gave up a touchdown in just over a minute, holding just a 24-20 lead at the half. Late in the 3rd quarter, the Saints offense came downfield and got hosed on a play where Brees hit Willie Snead on a pass that appeared to fall incomplete. but replay showed Snead came down with the football, completed the catch, and because the ball popped out after he had already fallen to the ground, the refs ruled it incomplete. The Saints didn’t challenge the play and they settled for a field goal. Things got interesting for New Orleans in the 4th quarter after a reception by Mark Ingram got them into scoring range. They caught a break from Arizona on a special teams’ penalty which gave them a first down, and Sean Payton decided to give running back Tim Hightower the ball instead and he punched it in for a goal line touchdown. After Arizona quickly tied the game with a rushing touchdown of their own, Brees marched the Saints back downfield and found rookie receiver Michael Thomas who made a great catch in the endzone for his eighth touchdown of the year. The Saints got another great play from one of their rookies – Ken Crawley – who recovered a fumble as Arizona was headed downfield to tie the game. A fortunate roughing the passer penatly was awarded to Brees when he was folded up on 3rd down, which gave the offense new life. Okay NOW is when things got interesting…Mark Ingram got the ball down to the 2 yard line again and as he looked to his own sideline, he saw he was being taken out of the game again for Tim Hightower to get the touchdown carry instead. Ingram was LIVID! My first thought was yeah, okay I get it – the dude makes a big play to get the offense to the goal line TWICE, he wants to finish the job off. But then I read that Ingram was one touchdown away from achieving a $100,000 incentive (that’s about 80,000 pounds, 95,000 euros) in his contract, so I completely understand his frustrations! I may be looking too far into this, but as soon as Tim Hightower scored, he went down to one knee and stretched his arms out, the same exact way Ingram does every time he hits pay dirt. Ingram’s teammates ultimately calmed him down on the sideline and the Saints held on for their sixth win of the season. I’m in no position to claim any of this was intentionally malicious toward Ingram, but I can think of 100,000 reasons why the Saints decided not to give him a chance to score. The Bucs and Saints will meet this Sunday for their second matchup this month – the Bucs beat the Saints two weeks ago in Tampa by a score of 16-11. In that game, neither QB threw a touchdown and Drew Brees threw three interceptions. There were six field goals kicked by both teams and I completely expect this second meeting between these teams to be more offensively productive, especially since it will be played inside the Superdome where offense is always in abundance. The Saints will be looking to play spoiler as well as get revenge from their loss against Tampa two weeks ago. the Bucs on the other hand are fighting for a playoff spot and must win this game to keep pace not only for the division title, but for a jam-packed NFC wild card race.