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Baker Mayfield threw three scoring passes, and the defense did not allow a touchdown as the Bucs beat the Saints 26-9 in their NFC South opener Sunday at the Superdome in New Orleans.
Tampa Bay (3-1) moved into sole possession of first place in the division, one game ahead of New Orleans (2-2) and Atlanta (2-2), which lost to Jacksonville earlier in the day.
Mayfield’s 4-yard scoring pass to Cade Otton with 5:19 remaining in the first half put the Bucs ahead 7-3. His 1-yard touchdown toss to Trey Palmer five minutes later extended the lead to 14-3. He added a 5-yard TD pass to Deven Thompkins in the fourth quarter, upping Tampa Bay’s advantage to 26-9.
Chase McLaughlin kicked field goals of 51 and 28 yards for the Bucs. Blake Grupe converted from 37, 32 and 44 yards for the Saints’ only points.
Mayfield completed 25 of 32 passes for 246 yards and the three touchdowns, with one interception. He picked up another 31 yards on eight rushing attempts.
With Mike Evans sidelined by a hamstring injury after less than a half of play, Chris Godwin caught eight passes for 114 yards, including a long of 44.
Antoine Winfield Jr. led the Bucs defense with nine tackles, including six solo stops, a fumble recovery, a sack and two tackles for loss.
A key sequence took place in the final minutes of the first half, with Tampa Bay leading 7-3 and looking to add on.
Mayfield was intercepted by Isaac Yiadom at the 1, and the Saints cornerback fell into the end zone. Officials ruled that Yiadom’s momentum took him over the goal line and placed the ball at the New Orleans 1.
The placement was significant, as Saints fullback Adam Prentice fumbled after a 5-yard gain on the very next play, and Winfield recovered at the 6.
Mayfield hit Palmer in the end zone two plays later for a 1-yard touchdown and 14-3 Tampa Bay lead with 19 seconds remaining in the half.
Bucs safety Ryan Neal was evaluated for a concussion early in the first quarter and ruled out for the remainder of the game. Evans sustained a hamstring injury late in the second and also did not return.
Saints quarterback Derek Carr, who sprained the AC joint in his right shoulder last week in Green Bay, was 23-for-37 for 127 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions.
Former Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston replaced Carr on New Orleans’ final possession and was intercepted by Dee Delaney on a badly underthrown ball on his only passing attempt.
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Here’s how it happened:
Not done yet
Down two scores early in the fourth quarter, the Saints drove the ball down the field for their third field goal of the game.
Michael Thomas took a short Derek Carr pass 20 yards to the New Orleans 44. The two connected again two plays later for 12 yards to the Tampa Bay 44.
A couple of short completions to Alvin Kamara and a Carr keeper resulted in another first down at the 33.
A defensive holding penalty against Bucs safety Christian Izien on Chris Olave two plays later gave the Saints another first down, at the Tampa Bay 26.
But New Orleans made no forward progress on the next two plays and faced third and 10 from the 26. Carr threw underneath for Kamara, who couldn’t hang on, with Greg Gaines in coverage.
Blake Grupe’s 44-yard field goal reduced the Bucs’ lead to 17-9 with 8:29 to play.
The Bucs were back on the move late in the third quarter, as Baker Mayfield hit Chris Godwin on a deep crossing route, good for a 32-yard gain to the Saints 40.
After an incompletion and penalty for an illegal man downfield, Mayfield scrambled for 10 yards, setting up third and 5 from the 30. A false start against Deven Thompkins pushed the Bucs back to the 35.
Mayfield scrambled for 7 more yards but came up 3 yards short of the sticks.
The Bucs settled for a 51-yard Chase McLaughlin field goal and a 17-6 lead with 13:31 remaining.
The Saints finally got running back Alvin Kamara untracked midway though the third quarter, as he ran twice for 15 yards to pick up a first down at the New Orleans 44.
The Saints quickly picked up two more first downs, on an 8-yard pass from Derek Carr to Michael Thomas and a 13-yard Kamara run off right tackle to the Tampa Bay 32.
After a 1-yard Kamara run and Taysom Hill scramble for 5 yards, New Orleans faced third and 4 from the 26. Carr’s pass to Kamara in the left flat resulted in a 7-yard gain and first down at the 19.
But the next two plays netted just 1 yards, and the Saints faced third and 9 from the 18. Carr threw underneath to Kamara, but he was tackled well short of the first-down marker.
New Orleans sent kicker Blake Grupe onto the field, and he converted a 32-yard field goal to trim the Saints’ deficit to 14-6 with 49 seconds left in the third quarter.
A 29-yard punt return by Rashied Shaheed early in the third quarter briefly appeared to give the Saints a boost, but it didn’t last long.
New Orleans started the drive at its 46-yard line, but Erik McCoy was penalized for a false start before the Saints could run a play, pushing the ball back to the 41. Shaquil Barrett then sacked Derek Carr for a loss of 3.
However, a face-masking penalty against Barrett gave the Saints new life and a first down at the 44.
It didn’t last long.
Antoine Winfield Jr. stopped Alvin Kamara for a loss of 6 yards, and Carr twice threw incomplete for Chris Olave deep down the right side, resulting in a punt. On the second attempt, Winfield knocked the ball away from Olave in the end zone, thwarting a potential scoring opportunity.
Leading 7-3 and in field-goal range in the final minute of the first half, the Bucs appeared poised to tack on to their lead.
Tampa Bay drove to the New Orleans 21-yard line in seven plays, facing second and 2 with 45 seconds remaining.
However, Baker Mayfield was intercepted by Isaac Yiadom at the 1 as the Saints cornerback fell into the end zone.
Officials ruled that Yiadom’s momentum took him into the end zone and placed the ball at the New Orleans 1.
The placement was significant, as Saints fullback Adam Prentice fumbled after a 5-yard gain on the very next play, and Bucs defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. recovered at the 6.
The Bucs didn’t squander their second opportunity, as Mayfield hit Trey Palmer in the end zone two plays later for a 1-yard touchdown and 14-3 lead with 19 seconds remaining in the half.
Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans sustained a hamstring injury during the drive that resulted in the Yiadom interception and is questionable to return.
Can’t be denied
After its first two possessions resulted in punts, the Bucs’ offense found its rhythm on its third, a 17-play, 87-yard drive that culminated with a go-ahead touchdown.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield went 9-for-9 on the drive, and the Bucs converted all four of their third-downs attempts.
Mayfield completions of 9 yards to Chris Godwin, 11 to Deven Thompkins and 5 to Godwin picked up first downs, as Tampa Bay quickly advanced to its 46.
The Bucs moved into Saints territory on the next play, an 18-yard pass to Mike Evans to the 36.
The next three plays netted only 3 yards, but Mayfield scrambled for 7 and a first down on third and 7 before going out of bounds at the 26.
Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore helped to extend the drive three plays later, pulling down Mike Evans on third and 7 from the 23, giving the Bucs a first down at the 15.
When a Rachaad White run and Chris Godwin reception netted just 2 yards, Tampa Bay found itself facing yet another third down, third and 8 from the 13.
It picked that one up, too, as White took a short pass from Mayfield 12 yards to the 2.
Mayfield threw out of bounds and Ke’Shawn Vaughn was dropped in the backfield for a 2-yard loss, bringing up third and goal from the 4.
Cam Jordan pressured Mayfield, but the quarterback found tight end Cade Otton open over the middle for a 4-yard touchdown, putting the Bucs ahead 7-3 with 5:19 to play in the second quarter.
Defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd hit Mayfield late, resulting in a roughing the passer penalty. The infraction was enforced on the kickoff.
Bending, not breaking
The Bucs seemed to have the Saints stopped near the start of a late first-quarter drive.
New Orleans faced third and 7 from its 22 when Derek Carr threw a short pass to Alvin Kamara on the left side. Tampa Bay’s defense appeared to have Kamara bottled up, but the back sidestepped a tackler and wound his way up the left sideline for 10 yards and a first down at the 32.
A holding penalty one play later wiped out a 9-yard gain by Taysom Hill, putting New Orleans into a first-and-20 situation from the 22.
But an 8-yard completion to Kamara, a neutral-zone infraction against YaYa Diaby and 11-yard pass to Rashid Shaheed gave the Saints a first down at the 46.
Still, the Bucs’ defense held.
Carr threw incomplete for Shaheed on third and 5 from the Tampa Bay 49, and the Saints were forced to punt.
Mike Evans got the Bucs’ offense going, hauling in an 18-yard completion from Baker Mayfield on their first play from scrimmage, giving Tampa Bay a first down at its 43.
Three plays later, the Bucs faced third and 1 from the Saints 48. Tight end Cade Otton was called for a false start, pushing them back 5 yards and making it third and 6 from the Tampa Bay 47.
It didn’t matter. Mayfield scrambled for 6 yards up the middle to the Saints 47, enough for a first down.
However, an intentional grounding penalty against Mayfield on the next play was more problematic. It resulted in a 12-yard loss and loss of down, making it second and 22 from the Bucs 41.
A short pass from Mayfield to Otton gained 6 yards, bringing up third and 16 from the Tampa Bay 47.
Seeing nothing open downfield, Mayfield dumped to the ball off to Rachaad White in the right flat. The play gained only 10 yards, and the Bucs had to punt.
First things first
The Saints got on the board first, driving 56 yards in 11 plays on an opening drive that resulted in a field goal.
New Orleans picked up the first, first down of the game two plays into the possession on a 12-yard pass from Derek Carr to Rashid Shaheed to the New Orleans 37-yard line.
Bucs safety Ryan Neal was down on the field after the play and evaluated for a concussion. He was later ruled out for the remainder of the game.
The Saints got their second first down one play later, as Taysom Hill connected with Michael Thomas for 13 yards, moving the ball to midfield.
Carr missed Shaheed on third and 1 from the Bucs 41, and New Orleans opted to go for the first down. Hill, lined up deep in the backfield, took a direct snap and ran up the middle for 2 yards and a first down at the 39.
The Bucs gifted the Saints 15 yards and another first down one play later, as Mike Greene was penalized for roughing the passer, moving the ball to the 24.
New Orleans advanced to the 19 before YaYa Diaby dropped Alvin Kamara in the backfield for a loss of 7 yards, setting up third and 14. Carr threw to Hill in the right flat, but Shaquil Barrett stopped him after a 7-yard gain.
The Saints had to settle for Blake Grupe’s 37-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead with 9:20 remaining in the first quarter.
In a way, everything up to this point has been prologue.
The season-opening victories over the winless Vikings and Bears. Monday night’s loss to the undefeated Eagles.
They gave us a glimpse into the Bucs’ capabilities. Experience with offensive coordinator Dave Canales’ new system. A chance to prepare a younger roster for the rigors of the 17-game regular season.
Sure, the starters played from beginning to end. But they were dress rehearsals, all.
Most league observers expected Tampa Bay to open the season 1-2, or maybe 0-3. The Bucs’ 2-1 start was a pleasant surprise, but they didn’t gain or lose ground in the most important race: that for the NFC South crown.
Three games into the season, the Bucs are tied with the Saints (2-1) for the division lead. The Falcons dropped to 2-2 with Sunday morning’s loss to the Jaguars in London, while the Panthers (0-3) lag two games behind.
For all intents and purposes, the Bucs’ season starts with today’s game against the Saints in New Orleans.
Consider: Since 2017, Tampa Bay or New Orleans has won the NFC South. The Bucs finished first the past two seasons, the Saints the four before that.
Only twice in those six seasons did the division produce a wild-card qualifier: 2017, when the Panthers and Falcons qualified behind the division-champion Saints; and 2022, when the wild-card Bucs upended the NFC South-champion Saints in the division round on their way to a Super Bowl championship.
The other four years, only the division champ made the playoffs. Which makes an NFC South title not only the surest, but possibly the only path to the postseason for Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Atlanta or Carolina.
So don’t get too excited about the unexpected win over the Vikings or too concerned about the dispiriting loss to the reigning NFC champion Eagles.
Neither will mean much in the long run.
The marathon march to the NFC South crown starts today.
The Bucs essentially start with a clean slate against the Saints.
Who’s in/who’s out
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A little light reading
Here’s some of our content leading up to today’s game:
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