Thanks to a remarkable four-game winning streak, the Tampa Buccaneers were well-positioned to win their third straight NFC South division title in Week 17. As it turned out, that chance quickly came and went, as Tampa Bay was throttled by New Orleans 23-13 in a sluggish all-around performance.
“Very disappointing, to be honest with you,” Rachaad White said after the game. “This is sickening. We didn’t come out to play. They got on us out of the jump. We came out dry. No juice, no energy, and they hit us in the mouth.”
Although Tampa Bay did outgain New Orleans 349-310 in total yards, the Saints were in control of Sunday's game from start to finish. Led by a clean performance from Derek Carr, the Saints jumped out to a 17-0 in the first half marked by complete dominance on both sides of the football.
For his part, Carr ended a noticeably poor streak of play against Tampa Bay, completing 24-32 (75.0%) of his passes for 197 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a 111.1 passer rating. In addition, Carr's outing complied a season-best 88.9 QBR, and was just his fourth game with multiple passing touchdowns and zero interceptions.
“I’ve never questioned the mindset of our team, I’ve never questioned the toughness of our team, I’ve never questioned the compete of our team," Dennis Allen said. "This game we play is hard. It’s not easy. There’s some times you’ve got to fight back after a tough loss. But I told the team last night we’ve got to handle hard well. And I thought the players did that."
Against the league's worst pass defense, Carr completed passes to ten different receivers, but found extreme success with tight end Juwan Johnson. He caught eight receptions for 90 yards including a four-yard touchdown catch with 7:03 left in the first quarter. Johnson's performance capped off a season-best outing amid a career-year, with 34 catches for 328 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
Buccaneers got roasted at the worst possible time
While the Buccaneers would outscore the Saints 13-6 in the second half, the 17-point first-half deficit would prove to be too much to overcome, in large part to two crucial interceptions by Baker Mayfield. Outside of those mistakes, however, Mayfield had another solid performance, completing 22-33 (66.7%) of his passes for 309 passing yards and two touchdowns.
Facing a demoralizing 20-0 deficit in the fourth quarter, Mayfield led Tampa Bay on an eight-play, 91-yard touchdown drive in just 2:40. From the nine-yard line, Mayfield connected with Mike Evans on a deep 35-yard pass down to New Orleans' 44. After completions to Chase Edmonds and Chris Godwin, Mayfield threw a 22-yard touchdown strike to Trey Palmer to get Tampa Bay on the scoreboard.
On their ensuing drive, Mayfield threw a beautiful 54-yard bomb to Palmer down the left sideline, only for Palmer to fumble and lose the football while falling down, with Isaac Yiadom recovering. That marked the Buccaneers' fourth turnover of the game, along with punts in five of their 11 possesions.
“It doesn’t matter who we played today. Good team, bad team, a college team, high school team, we wouldn’t have won,” Todd Bowles said.
Following a three-and-out by New Orleans, Mayfield captained Tampa Bay on their second scoring drive of the afternoon. After finding Edmonds in the flats for a seven-yard gain, Mayfield unleashed a deep post shot to Godwin, who caught it in stride and outran LB Zach Baun to the endzone to get the Buccaneers within ten points.
To make it a one-possesion game, Tampa Bay went for the two-point conversion, and Mayfield worked his magic, evading multiple Saints and found Godwin in the back of the endzone. Upon further review, illegal touching was called on Godwin, and the phenomenal play by Mayfield was overturned. Tampa Bay would retry the conversion, but Mayfield was intercepted by Paulson Adebo in the endzone to seal the loss.
Despite the crushing loss, Tampa Bay still controls its playoff destiny. The Bucs just need to win or tie in Carolina on Sunday to clinch the NFC South division and the No. 4 seed in the NFC Playoff picture. If the Buccaneers lose, then the winner of the Saints vs Falcons game will win the division and host a playoff game.
“Luckily we have one more game to seal this thing,” Mayfield said. “Again, backs against the wall. It’s somewhere we’ve been before. We’ve got to get it fixed and move forward. All you need is a chance to get in and we’re still sitting right where we need to be.”