NEW ORLEANS - In a season that seemed to have run out of steam and lacked emotion, Derrick Brooks provided both Sunday.
It may have happened at the Superdome and not the Super Bowl. And it was just another ball carrier he embraced, not an award for being the best defensive player in the league.
But when Brooks slammed into running back Deuce McAllister on fourth down to preserve a 14-7 victory over the Saints, it proved something about the world champions.
Even though winning has become more rare, it's just as meaningful.
"I was excited in that huddle. I just asked them, "I'm on the stage. Who's going to stand up here with me?"' Brooks said. "What better place to be to end this ballgame? The defense, we all stood up on the stage and ended the game."
The Bucs linebacker, who forced one of three fumbles lost by Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks, had plenty of defensive teammates rise with him Sunday.
Simeon Rice had three of the Bucs' seven sacks, increasing his league-leading total to 15. Greg Spires forced a fumble and Anthony McFarland and Chartric Darby each recovered one. And Warren Sapp helped on both sides of the ball, making a juggling catch for a touchdown on a pass he lost in the lights.
Obscure players like cornerback Ronyell Whitaker, who played in his first NFL game, and safety David Gibson, who blocked a punt, made huge contributions.
But it was Derrick Brooks, who led the Bucs with a sack and 11 tackles, who provided the spark to end McAllister's streak of nine 100-yard rushing performances and keep the Bucs' slim playoff hopes alive.
"Very rarely can a linebacker just completely take over a game, and he took over the game," linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "I could just tell by the look in his eyes. I could tell he's going to make a play to end this game. And lo and behold, on fourth down, who makes the tackle on Deuce? He does.
"This is still a pretty scary defense, and when we're hitting the quarterback and causing fumbles, it doesn't matter who's out there playing. It's intimidating."
The Bucs improved to 6-7, still two games behind Dallas and Seattle and one behind Green Bay in the wild-card race. The Saints (6-7) hold the tiebreaker by virtue of a better division record.
"We're like a wounded dog, and a wounded dog will bite you," Brooks said.
Sunday's game turned completely around in the final 1:49 of the first half.
That's when receiver Joe Horn dropped a touchdown pass that would've given the Saints a 14-0 lead. On the next play, quarterback Aaron Brooks had the ball slip out of his hands while attempting a pass, and safety Jermaine Phillips scooped it up, returning it 20 yards to the Saints 37.
A face-mask penalty at the end of a 9-yard run by Thomas Jones moved the ball to the Saints 14, where Brad Johnson hit tight end Ken Dilger in the flat and Dilger turned it upfield for a touchdown with 1:25 remaining in the half.
Gibson, who entered the game when John Lynch suffered a shoulder stinger, blocked a punt by Mitch Berger and Ronde Barber returned it 20 yards to the Saints 1. On first down, Johnson used a play-action fake before throwing into the end zone to Sapp, who made a leaping, juggling catch.
"I was on autopilot," Sapp said. "I mean, I saw Brad pull it and throw it and once it went up and it got to that first row of lights, those three lights over Archie Manning's name got me. I just stuck my hands out and once it hit my hands, I thought, "I've got to have it.' I swear on my two children I never saw it."
Just like that, in 85 seconds, the Bucs had gone from trailing 7-0 to leading 14-7.
"In a minute 40, we had a dropped touchdown, two fumbles, a blocked punt, two penalties and missed tackles for a touchdown," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "Twenty-eight minutes before that we played pretty good football."
Haslett had to be rubbing his eyes when he looked at the scoreboard. The Saints held the ball twice as long as the Bucs in the first half (20:02-9:58). They had a sizeable edge in first downs (13-7) and yards (216-113).
"Nothing surprises me in this league," Bucs defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin said. "That's football. It's art and science; emotion is a big part of it. It was an emotional lift for us and it steamrolled."
The Saints certainly had plenty of chances to win in the second half. The Saints had fourth and 1 at the Bucs 31 in the third quarter, and Haslett summoned John Carney for a 49-yard field goal, which he missed wide right. The Bucs' Brooks forced the Saints' Brooks to fumble in Tampa Bay territory, and McFarland recovered at the 30.
Even when the Bucs tried to give the game away, the Saints wouldn't take it.
Tampa Bay overcame Johnson's interception on a tipped pass with 10 minutes to go. The turnover gave the Saints their best chance to tie. But on second and goal from the 6, Spires, who had not had a sack, stripped Brooks, and Darby recovered.
"You watch this kid on film and he'll flat-out scare you with some of the decisions he'll make," Sapp said of Aaron Brooks. "He's not the brightest quarterback I've seen in the pocket with some of his moves and some of the stuff he does.
"Every quarterback in America throws that out of the end zone when you've got time because you've got to know they're coming. He held it, held it, ball on the ground. We get it, no points, game over."
Well, not quite.
Keenan McCardell made a pair of circus catches on third and 9 to help the Bucs run out the clock. But Martin Gramatica, who is 5-of-13 in field-goal attempts from 30 yards or more and missed from 44 yards, had his 35-yard attempt partially blocked by Tebucky Jones.
Gramatica's miss put the onus on the Bucs defense, which had not been able to slam the door on four occasions this season. Brooks and company responded, limiting the Saints to three first downs and 76 yards in the second half.
"That's just what he does, that's the ultimate highway patrolman," Sapp said. "You've got to get that arrest right there. He got him on the ground and we're out of here."