Tampa, Fla. – Sunday's game against Tampa Bay likely won't qualify as that elusive "best" game of the final four-game stretch that quarterback Drew Brees vowed last week that the New Orleans Saints will continue to pursue.
But for now, absolutely, it'll do.
The Saints (5-8) snapped a four-game losing streak with a hard-fought, well-earned, inspired, 24-17 victory over the Buccaneers (6-7) at Raymond James Stadium. New Orleans earned a split in the season series with Tampa Bay and exhibited an impressive amount of bounce-back following an emotionally and physically draining home loss to Carolina seven days earlier.
"Early on, I thought we did a good job with the field position," Coach Sean Payton said. "It seemed like a lot of that first half was spent on their end of the field. Overall, it wasn't perfect but I thought our guys played hard and played a pretty good complimentary game.
"We played hard last week, too (in a 41-38 loss to the Panthers). It was frustrating. I think the response this week was the one thing we talked about. You're concerned as a coach because you understand that you get close and yet, you've got to come back and go to work.
"But that's kind of the way life is, though. Our response was good this week, our effort was good and they did a good job of being smart, too."
The embodiment of that effort may well have been running back Tim Hightower.
Prior to this season, Hightower last had played in the NFL in 2011, as a Washington Redskin. Five games into that season he suffered a knee injury that turned out to be not just season-ending, but career-jeopardizing. And the Saints released him on the final training camp cut this year, a move attributable to need at another position and depth at his own rather than ineffectiveness.
But Hightower rejoined the Saints on Nov. 2 and Sunday, with leading rusher Mark Ingram sidelined by season-ending surgery to repair a torn left rotator cuff, he became lead back and primary thumper.
He had a career-high 28 carries for 85 and scored his first rushing touchdown since Sept. 11, 2011, a 3-yard run that gave New Orleans a 24-10 lead with 53 seconds left in the third quarter. Included in his workday was a yeoman-like interior stat – seven carries for 28 yards on the Saints' final, closeout drive of nine plays (plus a defensive penalty) and 35 yards that milked the remaining 4:13 off the game clock.
"I don't know what I expected," Hightower said. "I just made sure my body was ready, made sure I was hydrated – it was pretty humid out there. I just made sure I was prepared. I didn't know what was going to happen, I just wanted to make sure I was ready.
"It's awesome. You can't ask for a better situation to be put in. You train in the offseason, you work hard – that's what you want. If you're a competitor, you want the ball in your hands, you want the team to be counting on you in the most critical situations on the road.
"When he called my number those last couple of drives it just shows the confidence that he put on our O-line, that he has in us, and just being able to deliver when you get that opportunity felt great."
Postgame, Hightower stopped short of the doors to the Saints locker room to shake the hand of each teammate and coach.
"When this is all said and done I'm sure I'll stop and think about it and really kind of appreciate what it feels like," he said. "It's been a long time. It just goes to show, even with this team – our coach talked last night and we've been working hard all year and it just hasn't gone our way, but you keep fighting.
"You keep fighting no matter what happens to you in life, you keep fighting and that's what I did and that's what this team did. So to be able to be a part of this team and to get a win on the road in the division, it just feels great.
"I just was so excited and so proud of this team. I've been on teams where you're at that mark and it's easy for guys just to pack it in, it's easy for guys just to, 'Hey, my checks are still cashing, we've got three games left and I don't want to go into the offseason hurt.' It's easy for guys to pack it in.
"But we didn't. We didn't. Defensively, offensively, special teams, we didn't. Every single man came to work every single week, no matter who went down the next guy stepped up, we persevered and I felt that. My heart went out for every single one of these guys. I respect and love every single one of these guys in this locker room and I just wanted to make sure I let them know that, how appreciative I was of my teammates."
The Saints pounced on Tampa Bay early, with the defense forcing a punt after each of the Bucs' first three possessions, and the Saints scoring touchdowns on their first and third possessions. Brees (31 of 41 for 312 yards and two touchdowns, without an interception) tied off 60- and 65-yard touchdown drives with 3- and 1-yard scoring passes to Marques Colston (six catches, 32 yards), which gave Brees 421 career touchdown passes and moved him past Hall of Famer and former Miami Dolphin Dan Marino into fourth place on the all-time list.
"It's humbling," said Brees, who recounted that his first NFL game – as a rookie in preseason – was in Miami, at Marino's former home stadium. "It's an honor to have been able to play the game this long and have the opportunities that I've had, both in San Diego and New Orleans.
"It makes me reflect, just for a short period, about all the teams that I've had a chance to play with – the coaches, players, a lot of the guys that have been a part of those. There are so many people that are a part of that."
The Bucs were able to slice the lead in half, to 14-7, partially due to New Orleans' benevolence. Tampa Bay's 10-play, 80-yard drive was aided by three Saints penalties – two personal fouls on cornerback Kyle Wilson and a hold by cornerback Brandon Browner on second-and-5, second-and-7 and third-and-5, respectively. Doug Martin scampered in from 14 yards out with 8:04 left in the half for Tampa Bay's first touchdown.
The teams exchanged field goals to close out the half with New Orleans clinging to a 17-10 lead.
New Orleans was forced to punt on the opening drive of the second half but when Tampa Bay countered with Connor Barth's missed field goal from 47 yards, the Saints again took advantage of a short field.
They drove 63 yards in 10 plays, buoyed by a defensive illegal use of hands penalty that provided an automatic first down on third-and-15, and took their 24-10 lead on Hightower's run over left guard.
The teams exchanged punts before the Bucs pulled to within a touchdown again; Jameis Winston's 6-yard touchdown pass with 8:56 left closed the deficit to 24-17.
But after the Saints were forced to punt, the defense forced a three-and-out and the offense perfectly executed the four-minute drill, working the final 4:13 off the clock.
New Orleans converted three third downs on the drive to complete a dominating effort in that category on offense and defense.
The Saints converted 12 of their 17 third-down attempts (71 percent) and held Tampa Bay to four of 11 (36 percent).
"I think the key was the third-down numbers were favorable," Payton said. "I felt like offensively, we were in those third-down situations that we talk about – 2 to 3 (yards), 4 to 6. I think when you look at the third-down numbers, if you just looked at those to themselves, I think you'd be able to predict the outcome of the game. We converted a lot and defensively, we got off the field."
And they got a herculean game from Hightower.
"Not a guy in the locker room is happier for a guy than we all are for Tim," Brees said. "As much as Mark Ingram meant to this team…somebody needed to step up. Tim's traveled a really interesting road, really being out of football for a while with what a lot of people thought was a career-ending knee injury.
"He continued to fight, believe and battle his way back. He's really done a great job whenever he's gotten the opportunity and today, he knew he was going to be the workhorse. He really came through for us – 28 carries, 85 yards. They were hard yards. He had to earn every bit of that."