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Back to Earth

BUCS 20, SAINTS 23: The Saints sweep the season series from the error-prone Bucs, dropping

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2002

NEW ORLEANS -- The trouble with being in front is that all you hear are footsteps.

Not necessarily your own.

The Tampa Bay Bucs had the best record in the NFL with nothing but open road in front, the wind at their back and the finish line growing closer.

For a team that's used to doing the chasing, being the rabbit just doesn't suit it.

The Bucs fell back to the Pack, and to the Falcons and Saints for that matter, losing 23-20 to New Orleans at the Superdome Sunday night.

Tampa Bay fumbled four times, lost two, had an interception and yielded four sacks in losing to the Saints for the second time this season.

The loss dropped the Bucs to 9-3, giving them a half-game lead over red-hot Atlanta.

That sets up a critical divisional showdown Sunday with the Falcons (8-3-1), who carry an eight-game unbeaten streak into Raymond James Stadium. The Saints, who snapped a two-game losing streak, are a game back and hold the tiebreaker after sweeping the Bucs.

"Let's win. The name of the game now is win, and that's it," Bucs receiver Keenan McCardell said. "I'm not worried about position. Let them catch us. We'll keep going. We're out in front, the pressure is on them to catch us. But we've just got to keep applying the pressure to them."

The Bucs made it interesting, cutting the deficit to 23-20 on McCardell's 2-yard TD catch on fourth down from Brad Johnson with 2:49 to play and a 2-point conversion pass to Keyshawn Johnson.

It was the third fourth-down conversion for the Bucs on the drive, which took 17 plays to travel 84 yards.

But the Bucs never got the ball back for a possible tying field goal.

With starting quarterback Aaron Brooks injured and unable to return, backup Jake Delhomme chewed up the final 2:49, hitting Joe Horn for a 10-yard pass and a first down on third and 8 to end the game.

"We've played 12 games, we've been 3-1 in every quarter," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "That's pretty consistent ball. We've lost three games and all three of them, until the very end, we had chances to win. In the NFL today, there's not a lot of teams that can say that. At the same time, we've got a team (the Falcons) on a roll coming to Tampa.

"I saw things today (from Michael Vick) that I have never seen, ever. It's scary, what he did today."

In addition to Vick, who rushed for 173 yards and passed for 173 in an overtime win at Minnesota, Gruden has to worry about losing homefield advantage in the NFC.

Right now that belongs to Philadelphia, which defeated Tampa Bay 20-10 this season and owns the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Sunday, Tampa Bay was unable to prevent Brooks and the Saints from converting third downs. New Orleans converted nine of 17 and six of their last nine.

Tampa Bay also lost on special teams, allowing Saints return specialist Michael Lewis a 41-yard kickoff return and 56-yard punt return. And reliable kicker Martin Gramatica missed a 42-yard field goal that hit the right upright in the first half.

"The kicking game discourages you," Gruden said. "We missed a field goal, which is uncharacteristic, also. That's football. But I've got to tip my hat to them. They made some big plays themselves on third and long. Third and 10s, third and 8s. Then late in the game, they make another third and 8."

The Bucs defense, led by three sacks from defensive end Simeon Rice, held Brooks to 9-of-25 for 155 yards. But he tossed touchdowns to Horn and Jake Reed in the first six minutes of the second half.

Meanwhile, Saints running back Deuce McAllister, who played on a sprained right ankle, chewed up 99 yards on 27 carries.

Tampa Bay rushed for 34 yards on 16 carries. That put the burden on Brad Johnson, who completed 28 of 44 passes for 276 yards and touchdowns to McCardell and Mike Alstott. But he was sacked four times and fumbled twice, losing one.

"We executed drives, we converted fourth downs, we did it the hard way," Gruden said. "We had some opportunities during this game to make some plays. But right now, it's all on the passing game, it's not at all what I'm accustomed to or what I'm going to get used to. I'm not blaming anybody but myself."

Tampa Bay took a 9-6 lead into halftime thanks to one big play on each side.

Rice caused a safety when he stripped Brooks, who fumbled out of the back of the end zone. And Alstott's 44-yard catch-and-run provided the Bucs with their only TD of the half.

Rice didn't wait long to make history. Needing two sacks to become the first player to record multiple sacks in five straight games, he accomplished that feat in the first defensive series.

Rice's timing couldn't have been better for the Bucs.

Brad Johnson was sacked and stripped by defensive end Charles Grant, and linebacker Charlie Clemons recovered at the Bucs 29.

After McAllister carried for a first down at the Tampa Bay 15, Rice collared Brooks on consecutive plays for sacks of 1 and 14 yards. That forced the Saints to settle for a long field goal, and John Carney missed left from 48 yards.

Rice was just beginning to simmer.

A 52-yard punt by Tom Tupa, coupled with a holding penalty by the Saints, pinned New Orleans at their 8. On third down, Rice beat Kyle Turley again, this time stripping Brooks of the ball, which rolled out of the back of the end zone for a safety.

But the Bucs' 2-0 lead with 3:17 left in the first quarter was short-lived.

On the Saints' next try, Brooks drove his team 80 yards in 10 plays, coverting some huge third downs and a 28-yard flea-flicker pass to Horn.

McAllister's 6-yard TD run gave New Orleans a 6-2 lead.

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