Tampa, Fla. – Sunday's regular-season finale for the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium wasn't error-free, picturesque, standard-bearing or memory-erasing.
But what it was, was a Saints victory to close the regular season and a fulfilment of New Orleans' vow to play its starters throughout, chase victory as if it meant earning a playoff berth, and seek to enter the offseason with a better taste than would have remained if the final entry of the season had been of a loss.
The Saints' 23-20 victory over Tampa Bay included a 16-0 scoring margin for New Orleans in the fourth quarter, which helped the Saints (7-9) overcome three turnovers against the Buccaneers (2-14).
"We talked about finishing strong," Coach Sean Payton said Sunday. "I don't think we necessarily started well in this game. But any time we play, our DNA needs to be, 'We're playing to win.'
"You just can't turn it on, turn it off some of the times. Obviously, the season hasn't been anything like we'd hoped for or our fans had hoped for, and yet, I think it was important that we found a way to finish it on a good note, kind of go from there."
The notes reach a crescendo over the final 15 minutes, as the Saints rode a 1-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram, an interception by Keenan Lewis, a 36-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Marques Colston and consecutive sacks by Cam Jordan and Junior Galette – the latter of which produced a safety – to their fourth consecutive road victory of the season.
It wasn't quite enough to offset a five-game home losing streak which also will be carried into next season. But it was enough to help produce a season sweep of the Buccaneers, who were scoreless in the second half, when they produced just two of their 18 first downs and 32 of their 280 yards.
"That's always exciting, when you go out and you can finish strong," Lewis said. "We finished and that's something we haven't been doing all season. Hopefully, it can carry over into next year."
Said Jordan, who had half of New Orleans' three sacks: "Competition is in our DNA. We're not elite football players for no reason, we're here to win. And though a lot of things didn't go our way, we've still got this offseason to make ourselves better and make our team better."
New Orleans was forced to search before finding its "better" gear Sunday against Tampa Bay.
En route to taking a 20-7 halftime lead – two Patrick Murray field goals, a 6-yard touchdown pass from Josh McCown to Mike Evans and an 8-yard scoring run by Charlie Sims – the Bucs rolled up 248 yards and converted eight of 11 third-down attempts. They essentially doubled the Saints in time of possession in the half (19:49 to 10:11) and produced a batted-ball interception.
And on New Orleans' first two possessions of the second half, the Bucs again stopped the Saints, with consecutive end zone interceptions of Brees by safeties Bradley McDougald and Keith Tandy.
But after the second end zone interception was returned to the Tampa Bay 3-yard line, the defensive three-and-out by the Saints forced the Bucs to punt from their 6.
Following a 48-yard punt, the Saints drove from their 46 to the Bucs' 1 as the time in the quarter expired, then scored on Ingram's 1-yard run with 14:12 left in the game to pull to within 20-14.
The teams exchanged punts before Tampa Bay drove from its 30 to its 46 where, on third-and-5, McCown's pass caromed off Tavarres King's hand and into Lewis', who returned the interception two yards, to midfield, with 5:20 left.
"Good thing it fell in my hands," Lewis said, smiling.
From there, the Saints gained eight yards in three plays before Brees connected with tight end Jimmy Graham on a 4-yard slant on fourth-and-2.
Two plays later, facing third-and-8 from the Bucs' 36-yard line, he hooked up with Colston on a crossing pattern, and the Saints' all-time leader did the rest, beating his defender across the middle and the rest of the secondary down the left sideline to step inside the pylon with 1:57 left, giving the Saints a 21-20 lead.
"That was really just, let's get the first down, but Marques turned it into a lot more," said Brees, who completed 24 of 38 passes for 281 yards. "(He) did a great job of beating his man – man-to-man coverage – getting separation and not only making the reception, but then setting himself up to where he could turn upfield, make the guy miss the tackle and then down the sideline for the touchdown, tight squeeze. It was great."
After a 25-yard kickoff return, Tampa Bay began first-and-10 from its 17. A holding penalty on first down pushed the Bucs back to their 8, McCown completed a 3-yard pass on first-and-18 from the 9, and Jordan sacked him at the 6 on second down.
Then, on third-and-21, Galette tracked down McCown in the end zone for Galette's second safety-producing sack of the season, both against Tampa Bay, to give New Orleans a 23-20 lead with 1:05 left.
"We just needed to kind of settle down, start putting some drives together, convert some third downs, try to be complimentary and start wearing them down," Brees said. "We left our defense out there entirely too long in the first half, we didn't really sustain any drives.
"Defense came out and played great in the second half, gave us a lot of opportunities offensively. (We) put some good drives together – unfortunately for the turnovers in the third quarter – we were able to then capitalize on the good field position and put together some good drives in the fourth quarter to go down and win."
Tampa Bay was penalized for illegal touching on its onside kick attempt, and the Saints ran out the clock from there.
"It wasn't clean, it wasn't perfect," Payton said. "I was pleased the way we kind of hung in there in the second half and came up with enough plays to take the lead at the end.
"We ended up with pressure, we ended up with the sack and then the safety. That was big. It was good to see. We got them behind the chains a little bit and we were able to get in a pass defense mode. Once they got into the long-yardage situation, they become a little bit more one-dimensional."
That helped make the Saints winners in their season finale, but it didn't erase the memories of what was a disappointing season.
"(We) definitely will be ready next year," Lewis said. "I promise, this will never happen again. We'll be contenders. We're not worried about that.
"It's sad that it ended like this, I feel as though we let a lot of fans down."