TAMPA – Exhale, Bucs fans. This was a big one. Close and big.
Somehow, despite an offense that preferred field goals to touchdowns, the Bucs found a way to win. Actually, we know exactly how the Bucs won. With defense. Again.
Tampa Bay's offense has sputtered in recent weeks, but a defense that got sturdy in the red zone and then created turnovers led the Bucs to a 16-11 victory over the Saints.
How did the Bucs survive? Here are some instant thoughts following Sunday's heart-stopping and much-needed victory.
• Hey, how about this? The Bucs won't finish with a losing record. Sunday was their eighth victory, guaranteeing no worse than a .500 record. More importantly, Tampa Bay kept pace in the NFC playoff race. It remains tied with Atlanta for first place in the NFC South and held on to one of the two wild-card spots with three games left.
• You can't kick field goals instead of scoring touchdowns. Especially in the NFL. Especially against a team such as the Saints. The Bucs went to halftime up 13-8. Should have been more like 21-3. But instead of scoring touchdowns, the Bucs had two drives stall out and had to settle for Roberto Aguayo field goals. Hey, at least there is some good news there: Aguayo made his field goals. But, speaking of field goals, the Saints, too, wasted chances. Late in the third quarter, they had kicked three field goals. Two of those drives would have ended in touchdowns had it not been for dropped passes that looked to be certain touchdowns.
• Speaking of Aguayo. The guy Aguayo is like a box of chocolates. You never … well, you know the rest. On Sunday, we got the good chocolate, er, Roberto. He nailed field goals of 41, 39 and 26 yards. Still, we're waiting for the game when the second-round pick lines up for a field goal with the game — and maybe the season — on his foot. It'll be as fun as a box of chocolates.
• Remember last week when Vernon Hargreaves broke up a pass that led to Lavonte David's pick-six? Well, another linebacker (Kwon Alexander) repaid the favor. Alexander deflected a Drew Brees pass into the outstretched hands of a diving Hargreaves for the first interception of Hargreaves' NFL career. The first-round draft pick is having a heck of a rookie season and it's another check in the plus column for Bucs general manager Jason Licht. Also, kudos to Licht for the signing of cornerback Brent Grimes, who picked off his fourth interception of the year.
• This game had a ridiculous number of yellow flags. Clearly, both teams committed penalties, but it sure felt this officiating crew got way too involved in the game. It's one thing to make sure the game is played fairly, but there does come a point when officials have to let a few things go for the sake of keeping the game moving and the teams in rhythm.
• Not sure that the Bucs had three worse consecutive plays this season than they did on Sunday. Late in the first half, after leading 13-0, the Bucs allowed a field goal. That's not the bad part. On the ensuing kickoff, the ball bounced inside the 5-yard line and then hit Bucs returner Josh Huff in the facemask. If that wasn't bad enough, the ball then rolled out of bounds at the 1-foot line. It went from bad to worse when, on the next play, Bucs running back Doug Martin was tackled in the end zone for a safety. Then Bucs punter Bryan Anger kicked the ball out of bounds, giving New Orleans the ball at the 50. Before the half ended, the Saints added another field goal. So you could blame Huff for five points. And a game that was 13-0 went to 13-8 in a flash.
• The Bucs defense has been lights-out this season and it was so again on Sunday, holding Saints QB Drew Brees without a touchdown pass for the first time in 21 meetings against Tampa Bay. In fact, the Saints didn't score a TD of any kind. That's hard to do in this league.
• Two weeks in a row and Keith Tandy ices the game with an interception.
• One final pat on the back to Bucs punter Bryan Anger. Another stellar day, including two kicks pinned inside the Saints' 3-yard line.