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Saints use three field goals to beat injury-plagued Bucs

Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette leave with injuries as the Bucs are shut out by the reigning NFC South champs.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady is sacked by Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport during the second quarter Sunday.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady is sacked by Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport during the second quarter Sunday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 20, 2021|Updated Dec. 20, 2021

TAMPA — If the Saints defense was not in Tom Brady’s head, it certainly got under his skin.

After throwing an interception in Sunday’s 9-0 loss to the reigning NFC South champions, his eighth in four regular-season games against New Orleans, Brady moved toward the Saints sideline and began yelling at defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.

Then he went to the Bucs bench, picked up a Surface tablet and hurled it to the ground.

But by far the biggest frustration for Brady and the Bucs in falling to the Saints for the fourth straight time in the regular season since he took over as Tampa Bay’s quarterback was losing his three biggest pass-catchers.

Receiver Chris Godwin left the game early in the second quarter when he was hit on the right knee by Saints cornerback P.J. Williams after making a catch.

Mike Evans followed when he was forced to exit a few minutes later with a hamstring injury. Running back Leonard Fournette was gone early in the second half with a hamstring strain.

With Breshad Perriman on the reserve/COVID-19 list, that left Tampa Bay with three healthy receivers ― Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson and rookie Jaelon Darden.

Unfortunately, they combined for just six catches on 13 targets.

“Obviously, it was big,” coach Bruce Arians said of the injuries. “The young guys, I was hoping they would step up more at receiver. Overall, we just dropped too many balls, too, when we did have some guys open. They did a good job. They played that hard man-to-man, and we did not do a very good job of getting open.”

One guy who did get open was tight end Rob Gronkowski, but he also had a bad day. Gronkowski was targeted 11 times but had only two receptions for 29 yards.

“I don’t think we were much good at anything (Sunday),” Brady said. “I wish it was just one thing. It was a lot of things. So we’ve got to do better in every facet of offensive football to score points. We’re not going to win scoring no points.”

The Bucs entered the game with a chance to win the NFC South for the first time in 14 years and lock up a playoff spot. Instead, after victories by the Packers and Cowboys, they dropped to the No. 3 seed in the NFC.

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Tampa Bay’s defense played well and only allowed three field goals by Saints kicker Brett Maher.

Shutouts are rare in the NFL. It’s only the third time it’s happened to Brady in his career. It was the Bucs’ first shutout loss since the Saints won 41-0 at New Orleans in 2012 and their first at home since the Giants beat them 24-0 in 2009, when they finished 3-13.

“It’s very disappointing,” Arians said. “It’s never happened to me. I can’t remember the last time I was shut out or us. But the kicking game, our kickers let us down, also. Between the offense and the kicking game. The defense played well enough to win.”

The Bucs outgained the Saints 302-212 in total yards. They held New Orleans to 3 of 16 on third down and 3.5 yards per play.

All week long, the Bucs talked about how important it was to clinch the NFC South title against the Saints, who have worn the crown for four straight seasons.

Tampa Bay has lost seven straight regular-season games to New Orleans, though the Bucs did beat the Saints in the division playoff game last year.

Everything was stacked in the Bucs’ favor this time. They hadn’t lost at home in more than a year. Saints head coach Sean Payton missed the game after testing positive for COVID-19, and Allen served as interim head coach.

“It hurts more losing all the players we lost,” Arians said. “We lost about seven starters in this game. I’m more concerned about that right now.”

That list includes linebacker Lavonte David, who left the game in the fourth quarter with a foot injury.

Despite missing their top targets, the Bucs drove the ball to the Saints 24-yard line in the third quarter, thanks to long runs of 12 and 30 yards by Ronald Jones.

But Brady was tackled from behind by Cam Jordan — who had two sacks earlier in the game — forcing a fumble that was recovered by Marcus Lattimore at the New Orleans 13-yard line and returned to the 14.

The Bucs never could establish anything on offense in the first half.

Brady didn’t have much time to throw. He was victimized by a few dropped passes by Gronkowski. The Bucs’ only scoring chance, a 45-yard field goal attempt by Ryan Succop, was wide left.

Turnovers have been the difference in the regular-season series between the Bucs and Saints since Brady arrived. His sack-fumble with the Bucs trailing 6-0 was the only giveaway Sunday until he was intercepted by C.J. Gardner-Johnson with just over three minutes to play.

Arians said he didn’t know the extent of the Bucs’ injuries. Fortunately, receiver Antonio Brown and safety Mike Edwards will end their three-game suspension for misrepresenting their COVID-19 vaccination status Monday.

“A lot of guys got banged up (Sunday),” Brady said. “But that’s part of football, so we have to try to figure out who can go in and fill in some roles and play great football, and we’re going to have to put together a great week this week.”