TAMPA — Buccaneers players, coaches and fans were fit to be tied Sunday.
Needing a touchdown to send the game into overtime against the Saints, quarterback Josh Freeman rolled left on the final play of the fourth quarter and fired a pass to receiver Mike Williams near the back of the end zone. The side judge raised his arms, signaling touchdown.
Cannons exploded, fans at Raymond James Stadium leaped into each other's arms, and placekicker Connor Barth headed onto the field to kick the tying extra point.
But then an official's hat was dropped, a flag was flung and the game that looked like it was headed to overtime was done.
Saints 35, Bucs 28.
"I was very excited that we scored," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "Obviously … I'm thinking about overtime and who's going to go do the coin toss and how we're going to go and all that. And that quickly left my mind when I saw the one official with his hat off. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what that equals."
What it equaled was referee Jerome Boger ruling correctly that Williams went out of the end zone before catching the pass from Freeman, justifying a penalty for illegal touching. Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson deliberately pushed Williams across the end line, but because Freeman had left the pocket, Robinson was within the rules to make contact with the receiver.
"We practice it all the time, talking about in the red zone, when there's a scramble drill, push your guy out of bounds if you can because you no longer have to cover him and you can go help somebody on the other side," Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said.
"When I saw (Robinson), he told me, 'I pushed him out of bounds.' I knew the game was over."
The Bucs dropped into a second-place tie with the Saints (2-4) in the NFC South after another missed opportunity.
"I've got to be strong enough to stay inbounds. That's on me," Williams said. "We have the game tied. We see the flag down. I was thinking it was pass interference or something, and they said it was illegal touching. Game over."
Sunday's defeat spoiled a remarkable performance by quarterback Josh Freeman, who passed for a career-high 420 yards, including three touchdowns and no interceptions. The team's 513 total yards was the most in a home game and the second-most in team history.
Freeman was nearly the equal to Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who passed for four touchdowns and led scoring drives on four consecutive possessions to turn a 14-0 deficit into a 28-21 halftime lead.
A goal line stand by the Saints' maligned defense — and an unsportsmanlike penalty on the Bucs during a 51-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley — contributed to the loss in the second half.
On the Bucs' second possession in the third quarter, receiver Vincent Jackson, who was limited in practice last week due to a calf strain, caught a tipped pass from Freeman and raced 95 yards down the sideline, getting caught at the 1-yard line by a hustling Jenkins.
Enter running back LeGarrette Blount, who had two previous carries in the game for 1 yard.
Though rookie Doug Martin was having one of his best games and finished with 85 yards on 16 carries (5.3 average), including a 36-yard touchdown run to give the Bucs a 14-0 lead, Schiano said he believed Blount to be the team's best goal line back.
But Blount lost a yard on first and goal, got it back on second down and was stuffed for no gain on third down. On fourth and goal from the 1, Freeman ran a bootleg right seeking to hit tight end Luke Stocker in the back of the end zone. But Stocker was covered and Freeman was pushed out of bounds for a 4-yard loss.
Schiano defended his belief that Blount is the best goal line back.
"Whether he is or he isn't, certainly we think he is, that's why he's in there at the time," he said.
The Bucs defense, which blew assignments all day, appeared to have held on the Saints' ensuing possession, forcing a 51-yard field goal by Hartley. But prior to the snap, the Bucs shifted and were penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct for "attempting to disconcert.''
Four plays later, running back Pierre Thomas scored on a 5-yard run to make it 35-21.
Freeman rallied the Bucs with a 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dallas Clark with 4:10 to play, and the quarterback thought he had tied it with his pass in the end zone to Williams.
"The bottom line is they made more plays," Freeman said.
Jackson finished with seven catches for a career-high and single-game team record 216 yards, and a touchdown.
"Again, we're sitting here, what are we, 2-4 now?" Schiano said. "And we're saying this old song and dance. That's the way it is.
"Until we get it changed, until we find a way to change it, close but no cigar."