TAMPA, Fla. – It’s too early to say for sure. But there might come a day when historians look back to find the precise time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers turned the corner. Sunday might end up being that day.
A team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2007 season and is only slightly removed from a horrid 3-13 2009 season, did what didn’t seem possible as recently as a week ago. The Bucs pulled off their biggest win since Raheem Morris took over as head coach in 2009.
The defense created four turnovers, Earnest Graham stepped in at tailback and rushed for 109 yards, and Josh Freeman threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns as the Buccaneers defeated the New Orleans Saints 26-20 at Raymond James Stadium.
More importantly, Tampa Bay’s defense stood up to one of the NFL’s most frightening sights. That’s Drew Brees marching the New Orleans offense down the field in the final minutes of a game. That’s been the ruination of many a team and it looked like Brees was about to pull off another comeback win.
The Saints got the ball back with seven minutes and 19 seconds left. Ordinarily, that’s an eternity for Brees, who’s shown he’s capable of putting up two or three touchdowns in that amount of time.
“Nerve wracking,’’ Morris said.
Brees and the Saints started at their own 24-yard line and moved all the way down to Tampa Bay’s 4-yard line. With a fourth-and-2, Brees dropped back and his history prepared us for what should have happened next.
“The biggest challenge in the world is getting Drew Brees out there on fourth down and whatever,’’ Morris said.
What happened next is the play the historians might point to, the play that might end up turning the tide in an NFC South race that the Saints seemed poised to run away with. Brees threw to backup tight end John Gilmore. But linebacker Quincy Black stepped in to intercept the ball in the end zone with 3:16 left and effectively ended the game.
“That’s scary when Drew Brees is coming down the field,’’ Tampa Bay offensive tackle Donald Penn said. “I’m on the sideline and I’m like 'Oh man.' Drew Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, especially with two minutes left. I was worried, but the defense came through.’’
The defense came through all day. That’s significant because Tampa Bay came up with three interceptions and recovered a fumble against one of the league’s top offenses. That’s significant because it came a week after Tampa Bay got thumped 48-3 by San Francisco.
“We left it there in San Francisco,’’ said Graham, who was filling in for the injured LeGarrette Blount.
What the Bucs found back home in Tampa Bay (before shipping off to London on Monday morning to play the Chicago Bears next Sunday) was a bigger win than they’ve had in several years. In a 10-6 season last year, the Bucs won a lot of games against mediocre teams. Even the biggest victory earlier this season, against Atlanta, wasn’t all that impressive because the Falcons have been up and down.
But Sunday was different. There’s no debating whether the Saints are a good team. There’s no arguing the Bucs played their most complete game since Morris has been around. Graham took care of the ground game, Freeman had his best game of the season and the defense was the story of the day.
“When our defense plays like that, there’s no one in the NFL that can beat us,’’ Penn said. “No one.’’
That may sound a little grandiose, but Penn just might be right. Tampa Bay’s two best defensive games this season have come against Atlanta and New Orleans. Those are division opponents and Tampa Bay’s defense is what could end up putting the Bucs ahead of the rest of the NFC South.
The victory put the Bucs at 4-2. That’s the same record as the Saints and Tampa Bay and New Orleans are one game ahead of Atlanta in the win column. The Bucs already have wins against the Saints and Falcons and they’re very much a player for the division title.
The Saints and Falcons each have had defensive problems. Tampa Bay’s defense is very young, but it’s showing strong signs it also is becoming very good.
You could make a case that Tampa Bay has the NFC South’s best defense. If that turns out to be the case through the rest of the season, the Bucs just might end up winning a division where Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton can put up points, but none of their teams are doing much on defense.
The prospect of the Bucs winning the division isn’t that big of a stretch.
Last year’s motto from Morris was “The Race to 10.’’ The Bucs ended last season with 10 wins, but just missed out on the playoffs.
That’s why this year’s message is different. The Bucs aren’t shooting just for 10 wins. They’ve made it clear the NFC South title is their goal.
“That’s what we’ve said from the beginning,’’ Morris said.
If they keep playing like this, the Bucs might be standing atop the NFC South at the end.