TAMPA — In a game lost by a single score, three penalties were especially costly for the Bucs, from the first play of the game to the final minutes.
On the opening snap of the game, Jameis Winston hit WR Vincent Jackson for a 36-yard gain, but it come back on a holding penalty by rookie LT Donovan Smith, setting up a three-and-out.
"That's on them. If they say I was holding, then I was holding. I'm just playing football," Smith said. "You can't control the flags. … We were just shooting ourselves in the foot."
The defense did the same in the third quarter, keeping alive the drive that would result in the winning touchdown. The Bucs had forced a third and 15 and got a sack from DE Kourtnei Brown, but DE Howard Jones was flagged for illegal hands to the face, giving the Saints a first down.
And when the Bucs needed the ball back with 2:30 to play in the game, they forced an incompletion on third and 2, only to see DB Alterraun Verner flagged for defensive holding, an automatic first down that all but ended Tampa Bay's chances.
"Favorable third downs, third and longs, we should win," coach Lovie Smith said. "Whether it be penalties or just not playing ball, we can't have it."
THIRD AND WOW: Saints QB Drew Brees was stellar on third down — 12-for-13 for 149 yards and nine conversions, running for another conversion on third and 1. The Saints went 12-for-17 on third downs — not counting the two third downs where Bucs penalties resulted in first downs — and only once all season has an NFL team allowed more third-down conversions this season.
The Bucs weren't nearly as sharp on third down, going 4-for-11 — and two of those conversions came on third and 1. They missed five third downs when they needed 6 yards or less to move the chains, against a defense that came in worst in the NFL in points and yards allowed.
INJURED: WR Vincent Jackson left the game with a knee injury in the second quarter and did not return. Jackson, who missed three games with a knee injury, was not in the locker room after the game; the severity of his injury is unknown.
SWITCHES: With rookie LB Kwon Alexander suspended for the final four games of the season, the Bucs turned to Bruce Carter, who made his first start of the season. He had eight tackles — only LB Lavonte David (13) had more — and had the team's first sack, as well as a second tackle for loss. Carter injured his right foot/ankle late in the game and had to be helped off the field. He had the ankle iced after the game and declined to speak to reporters.
The team also went back to veteran Gosder Cherilus at right tackle, starting him and making Demar Dotson inactive, one week after switching to Dotson after Cherilus had been limited in practice by a knee injury.
THIS AND THAT: Rookie WR Adam Humphries got his first career touchdown, catching a 6-yard pass from Winston in the fourth quarter. … RB Charles Sims set a career high with six catches for 64 yards, including three on the touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. … Brees threw six interceptions in two games against the Bucs last season, but he threw just one in two games this year, and zero in Sunday's win.
Contact Greg Auman at email@example.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.