The game was on their shoulders now.
Who would suspect the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would collapse under the weight?
They were built for moments like these. It was the fourth quarter, and they had a double-digit lead, and once again, the season seemed to have life. It was step-on-the-neck time. It was close-the-door time. It was turn-out-the-lights time.
And the Bucs lost.
With an 11-point lead in the final quarter, they wilted away. With so much to gain, with so much to win, they faded at the finish. They had the game in hand, and they lost it.
None of the rest of it really matters. Not the silly away-from-the-ball penalty, and not the offense that seemed to look more desperate by the snap, and not even the brilliance of the opposing quarterback. In the end, this loss will be remembered this way: The Bucs had a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, and they gagged it away.
They did not hold up because they could not hold on.
It is as simple as that. On a team that is built around its defense, on a team where the best coaching, the best free agents, the brightest stars are on all that side of the ball, a loss like this feels like a betrayal. How does a team take a 31-20 lead into the fourth quarter and blow it?
Can't someone make a play here?
Can't anyone make a play?
This one had the feel of a team giving away a game, and with it, a part of its self-identity. If the Bucs had beaten the Saints on Sunday, they would have been on a two-game winning streak. They would be 1-2 in the division, and it would have felt as if a lost franchise had found itself.
Instead, the Bucs chased the Saints until they found defeat, and they fell to 1-4, and once again, they settle into the basement of the NFC South. Based on the way the defense finished, where else would you expect them to be?
Yes, the Saints are a potent offense. Even so, 31 points should be plenty to win, and an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter should be safe enough.
After all, this is a defense that was going to restore the roar this year, a defense that was going to give you patience as you watched the offense play.
Is there a defense in this division that has bigger stars than Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David? How about Michael Johnson and Alterraun Verner and Mark Barron? Remember how the old Bucs would plead for the offense to give them just 17 points? Sunday, this defense was given two touchdowns more than that.
And it wasn't enough.
For goodness' sake, the defense barely slowed New Orleans in the late going. The Saints had 511 yards on the day, and 202 of them came in the fourth quarter and overtime. Of their 10 longest plays, half came in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Oh, you want to blame someone? You can talk all you want about that hands-to-the-face penalty that Bucs cornerback Johnthan Banks got on a third-down play when the defense seemed to be off the field. But on the Saints' three scoring drives in the late going, New Orleans ran 30 plays. There were opportunities for other players to stand up, too.
By the end, the Bucs were a team desperately trying to hold on, grabbing, flailing as New Orleans running backs went past. Pierre Thomas ran 27 yards for one touchdown. Khiry Robinson ran 18 for the winning touchdown. Either of them could have run 80.
They were tired? Here's a suggestion: Perhaps they can get off the field quicker.
"It's hard to gauge how big that was," defensive tackle McCoy said. "Somebody has to make a play."
Oh, a few did. Mike Glennon played fairly well, throwing for 249 yards and two scores. But in the fourth quarter, the offense didn't get a lot done. After the Saints trimmed the Bucs' lead to 31-26, Tampa Bay spent its next drive going backward. It had three penalties, two short runs and a fumble, all of which led to a New Orleans safety.
In the fourth quarter, the differences in the body language of the teams were obvious. The Saints, though behind, seemed more confident, more aggressive. The Bucs seemed as wide-eyed as a man slipping down a cliff.
Great defenses do not finish this way. Great defenses take control of a game. Great defenses love it when the score and the clock and the field position are all on their side.
At such times, those defenses become hunters.
This one? It is still the hunted.