Brees does enough
The Bucs have given up bigger games to Saints QB Drew Brees, who went 19-of-29 for 187 yards Sunday. But it wasn't his numbers.
It was his efficiency that was most impressive. Brees wasn't intercepted or sacked for the first time in five games. In the previous four games, he had thrown seven interceptions and lost three fumbles.
He did neither against the Bucs. Instead, he threw three touchdowns, even though much of his success came on short routes rather than deep passes.
"I think he showed (Sunday) that he can do it the other way, too," Bucs CB Ronde Barber said. "He just knows where to put the ball. He's as good at diagnosing defenses as anybody I've been around. And he throws a great ball. He and (coach) Sean Payton together are a dangerous combination."
Games can often be decided based on a team's performance in a two-minute span. During the moments before the end of halves, the two-minute defense becomes critical. And for the second straight week, defensive breakdowns at the end of a half did in the Bucs.
While last week's occurred in the final seconds of a loss at Miami, Sunday's came in the final 1:38 of the first half, when the Saints turned a 3-point lead into a 10-point advantage that gave them plenty of momentum. The Bucs blamed missed assignments and other mistakes against the Dolphins. This time, the culprit was QB Drew Brees. The outcome was the same.
"The one this week is a little different than last week," CB Ronde Barber said. "But you win football games in the two-minute drill. They just exploited some matchups. They had Barrett (Ruud) on (Marques) Colston a couple of times. It's a bad matchup for us."
Twice, Colston exploited the Bucs in the middle of the field, once catching a strike for 21 yards in front of S Sabby Piscitelli then making a 20-yard catch-and-run.
"(Teams) are exploiting the matchup problems that we have in the two-minute drive," S Tanard Jackson said. "Against a team like that, they're going to create some mismatches. They're going to hit some of those. I think it's definitely something that needs to be fixed. And it starts with us players. No matter what the call is, we need to execute as best we can."
After missing two games with a sore left knee that has bothered him since preseason arthroscopic surgery, WR Antonio Bryant returned and caught three passes for 40 yards.
He looked healthy and fluid, and he caught a 21-yard pass from QB Josh Freeman that required a midair adjustment.
"It's not all about me," Bryant said. "I have to play for the guys who are out there. We had four receivers total (Sunday). So, I have to pick up my end, and I have to be accountable for those guys. When I'm not practicing, it hurts them. … When I get back in, I have to pick up my load."
A challenging day
One of the most frantic moments on any sideline is when a coaching staff tries to decide whether to call for a replay challenge. The Bucs had two such moments in the first half, and neither went in coach Raheem Morris' favor. Both seemed to have questionable chances of success.
On the first, with 9:13 left in the second quarter, the Bucs argued that a punt downed at the 1-yard line was actually touched by a defender at the Bucs 4. The ruling on the field was confirmed.
"That's kind of a big deal when you're playing in a big game and you've got the ball on the 1-yard line or … on the 4-yard line with a kid like Josh (Freeman)," Morris said. "You've got a chance to give them an opportunity to score. You've got to take that challenge."
Asked whether he thought he should have fielded the punt, which had hit near the 10-yard line, Clifton Smith (who had caught a punt at the Bucs 5) said he did the right thing in letting it go by him.
"It's too risky," he said, noting how close to the end zone he was. "I think the one thing I would have done differently was go up and block somebody to keep them away from the ball. I should have tried to hit somebody under the chin."
Four minutes later, Morris spent his second challenge when he argued that a pass deflected by LB Quincy Black into the hands of LB Barrett Ruud was an interception and did not touch the ground as ruled. Replays didn't establish indisputable evidence, which is necessary to overturn a call.
It was "a chance to get a turnover, a big-time turnover, that really would've gotten us some momentum, got the crowd going, got us going," Morris said. "I'm not going to second-guess those decisions."
Coaches are allotted two challenges per game but are assessed a timeout if they fail.
"You can't keep them right now (after the game)," Morris said. "They don't help me at the end of the game."
The Bucs have taken some questionable approaches to clock management late in games or halves, and it continued Sunday. Late in the first half, the Bucs took possession with 2:09 left. But they used just 30 seconds as they went three and out with a run for no gain followed by two incomplete passes. That allowed the Saints to field the Bucs' punt with 1:38 remaining, plenty of time to embark on a 63-yard scoring drive. Bucs coach Raheem Morris didn't necessarily lament the decision, but he admitted it hurt his team. "We played a manageable first half," Morris said. "We got some of the things we wanted to get accomplished (like) keep Drew Brees off the football field … limit his attempts. At the end there, we let the rope go, gave them the ball back with a scoring and striking mentality, and he's able to get (them) there." The touchdown turned a 10-7 score into a 17-7 affair, and the Bucs never recovered.
Tampa Bay's 12-play, 95-yard scoring drive to open the game was the team's longest of the season and longest since Dec. 30, 2007 (98 yards vs. Carolina). The 6:55 was the longest scoring drive by time this season and marked the second straight game the Bucs scored on their opening drive.
• T Jeremy Trueblood suffered a knee injury in the second half and did not return, but he said after the game that it did not appear to be serious.
• TE Kellen Winslow's five receptions give him 47 this season, second most by a tight end in team history. Jackie Harris holds the record with 62 in 1995.
• CB Elbert Mack sat out with an ankle injury.