We didn't want (last year's loss) to happen again. We came in here with that on our minds, DE Darren Howard says.
By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 2002
TAMPA -- New Orleans went yard.
That's how Saints coach Jim Haslett described Sunday evening's 26-20 overtime victory over the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium. It was a game New Orleans played with last season's 48-21 loss Dec. 23 at Raymond James Stadium still fresh on the minds of players and coaches.
"We've been excited about this game for a long time," Haslett said. "We heard it all offseason, they beat the c--- out of you last year. They beat you up.
"I heard our special-teams coach (Al Everest) tell a guy the other day, "I know a lot of batters that strike out and come back and hit home runs too.' That was the theme going into this game. Hey, we struck out last year. Let's come back and hit a home run."
Last season's loss to the Bucs was the first strike. The Saints struck out two more times to finish their season with three consecutive losses, and they were outscored 78-10 in two home losses to finish 7-9.
New Orleans begins a new era in the NFC South with this road win against the division favorite, in a game that saw the Saints roll up 368 offensive yards, including 118 rushing yards, take a 20-10 third-quarter lead and win it with a special-teams touchdown in overtime.
"It all came down to that last play," said special-teams standout Fred McAfee, who broke into Tampa Bay's backfield on the last play to force punter Tom Tupa's game-deciding interception. "It was a testimony to our team how we stuck it out and played hard the entire game."
Even as the Saints lost control late, allowing the Bucs to score 10 unanswered points and tie it at the end of regulation, New Orleans stayed focused in overtime. It wasn't easy, linebacker James Allen said, after watching Martin Gramatica's 40-yard field goal send it into the extra quarter.
"It was pretty deflating, but we had to keep it going," said Allen, who intercepted Tupa in the end zone on the game's last play. "Our coaches were telling us you can't flatten on a bad play. They told us to keep playing hard and we'll get the win."
Get the win. It was a mantra the entire franchise had adopted since last season's loss at Tampa Bay. One that stuck with the defense as it harassed quarterback Brad Johnson and stifled Bucs coach John Gruden's new offense in the first half.
"We thought about it a lot," said defensive end Darren Howard, a Boca Ciega standout. "We mentioned it every day. We didn't want it to happen again. We came in here with that on our minds. Ever since minicamp, it was in the back of our minds the whole time."
Added defensive tackle Norman Hand: "The thing is everybody was waiting on this, waiting for this game, I know I was. We had some people who gave up on us last year, but this team this year isn't giving up. We fought until the end today."
For quarterback Aaron Brooks, familiarity breeds contempt. Not only was last season's loss on his mind, but he said the Saints scouted the Bucs defense so well there was nothing Tampa Bay did that surprised them Sunday.
"There's that old saying, some guys never change," Brooks said. "In football you can only bring a certain amount of blitzes, and we were able to pick up on all their blitzes. They brought the corner blitz, weak-safety blitz, things we (repeated) so much during the week (in practice.)
"We're just glad the offensive line was on their P's and Q's, and the receivers were crossing their T's and dotting their I's."
Sunday was not the end, Hand said, but the beginning, of a new division, of a new rivalry.
"Yeah, it's definitely a rivalry now," he said. "Last year was embarrassing enough for us. We had this game circled on our calendars to come in here and get the W."