TAMPA — This is what redemption looks like:
A defensive lineman in bare feet and bandages looking for a rookie running back to grab, hold and congratulate in the middle of a rapidly clearing locker room as midnight approached.
Rachaad White had committed the cardinal sin of running backs in the third quarter Monday night when he had the ball knocked out of his grasp from behind while running across midfield. The Saints converted the turnover into a field goal, and it seemed as if White might never touch the ball again.
And then, with the clock and the season ticking away, he caught a pass on the 2 yard line and dove into the end zone with three seconds remaining for the winning touchdown in a 17-16 Tampa Bay victory.
“I was filled with joy for him. And that’s what I was telling him,” said Bucs defensive lineman Rakeem Nunez-Roches, who embraced White in the locker room after most of their teammates had left. “I told him, ‘For you not to hold your head down and find a way to win the game, praise be.’
“I loved that for him. I just had to give him a hug and give him his flowers. That’s how you do it. Ain’t nobody going to talk about that fumble, they’re going to talk about that game-winning touchdown.”
This is what redemption sounds like:
A crowd shouting and singing as a beleaguered coach walks off the field with a barely perceptible smile peeking out from behind his gray beard. The same coach who, not much earlier, stood passively on the sideline while boos rang down from the thousands sitting above him.
It had not been an easy eight days for Todd Bowles. He was criticized relentlessly for his cautious approach in Cleveland that contributed to a critical loss in the waning minutes of a game.
And now, here he was again, choosing to be conservative by choosing to punt on fourth and 10 from his own 25 with 7:06 remaining in the game and the Saints leading 16-3. Quarterback Tom Brady looked like he was assuming the Bucs would go for it on fourth down when Bowles called him off the field.
As it turned out, the Bucs got the ball back barely 90 seconds later and went on a 91-yard touchdown drive. And then, with time running out, they drove for the game-winning score.
“Ultimately, it was a great decision by Todd to punt it,” Brady said later. “(If) we don’t get it, they (could) kick a field goal and (then) we need two touchdowns and two two-point conversions, which is very tough.”
This is how redemption feels:
A 338-pound offensive tackle in his 121st NFL game pushing, shoving, doing whatever he could to hold his ground and protect his quarterback for the 52nd pass attempt of the game while Chris Godwin scored the apparent game-winning touchdown with 16 seconds remaining.
And then Donovan Smith saw the yellow flag on the turf and realized he’d been called for a holding penalty. Not only was the touchdown nullified, but the Bucs were moving back to the 15-yard line.
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In the huddle, guard Nick Leverett did what every good teammate would do.
“I could definitely see how much it hurt him,” Leverett said. “Donovan works his tail off to give us a chance to win. He does it all throughout the week and on game day. I could see the hurt in his eyes, because he never wants to be the guy to let the team down.
“But that’s why it’s the job of guys like me, Shaq (Mason), (Robert) Hainsey, Mike (Evans), Tom (Brady) to tell him it’s OK. We all mess up. None of us is perfect. And we still had time on the clock. That’s what I told Donny. ‘Don’t sink. We need you. This is a critical point.’ He took that and did a great job.”
This is how redemption works:
Even after 23 years and 43 other fourth-quarter comebacks, the game’s most decorated quarterback can still appreciate what it takes to get this far.
His team is imperfect. His season has been among the worst of his career. And his night was looking positively dreadful as he missed three open receivers on deep routes and threw a rare interception.
But in the final 5:21, Brady took the Bucs on two touchdown drives, and the scoring pass to White was the latest game-winner of his storied career.
“Just like we drew it up,” a grinning Brady said as he walked to the postgame podium.
This is the redemption that is still in doubt:
The Bucs are now back to .500 and have the NFC South championship in their grasp. No matter what anyone else does, the Bucs will clinch the division and a home playoff game if they win three of their final five games, as long as one of those victories is against Atlanta or Carolina.
This was the first time they had beaten the Saints twice in the same regular season in 15 years.
“That was a hard-fought win, but we kept swinging. We kept swinging,” linebacker Devin White shouted in the locker room after Bowles finished addressing the team. “We came out on top.
“We knocked their asses out.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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