The New Orleans Saints may have been in position to break Tampa Bay.
Or, maybe not, because It's impossible to say definitively what "may" have happened if "this" or "that" had been successful or unsuccessful. All that is known for sure is what actually did happen.
And what happened for the Saints, in a 20-10 loss to the Buccaneers on Sunday in the Caesars Superdome, was this: A golden opportunity was lost in the third quarter, one which reverberated and raised the "what if" temperature by an extra 100 degrees in a game where points were at a premium due to the stinginess of two high-level defenses.
On the drive after Tampa Bay tied the score at 3 with a 47-yard field goal, New Orleans opened its next drive at its 25 following a touchback. And the Saints went about constructing their most balanced and effective drive of the game, a mix of three passes (for 25 yards) and five runs (for 30 yards) that pushed New Orleans to first-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 20-yard line with 1:19 left in the quarter.
But with the Saints in scoring position, and touchdowns scarce among the two combatants, New Orleans couldn't throw what undoubtedly would have amounted to an offensive haymaker.
Running back Mark Ingram II took the handoff off left guard, manipulated his way through heavy traffic and as he anticipated contact, covered the football with both hands.
It wasn't enough.
As safety Logan Ryan and linebacker Lavonte David converged for the tackle, Ryan attacked the ball and executed a perfect punch-out at the 11-yard line. When linebacker Carl Nassib recovered at the 10, New Orleans went from the possibility of a lead-taking field goal and, perhaps, backbreaking touchdown, to an empty red zone trip and a score that remained 3-3.
With 71 seconds remaining in the third quarter, there remained sufficient time and opportunity for the Saints to rebound from the turnover and win the game. But the lost fumble was a heavy blow for the offense, which didn't again operate with that kind of rhythm and balance down the stretch.