Not all turnovers are created equal.
The New Orleans Saints had four of them against Tampa Bay in their season-ending, 30-20 loss in the NFC divisional playoffs Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and each was harmful in its own way. As Coach Sean Payton is apt to say following a loss, there were more than a few dirty hands for the Saints, so assessing singular blame is unfair.
But Drew Brees' second quarter interception, and Jared Cook's third quarter fumble, were major game-changers, at times when New Orleans (13-5) appeared to be positioning to assume control of the game.
Brees was harried on the interception, attempting to evade a defender, when he lofted a pass for receiver Michael Thomas toward the right sideline. Tampa Bay cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who'd physically jostled Thomas and cut underneath the route, intercepted the pass and returned it 36 yards, to the Saints' 3-yard line.
On the next play, Tom Brady threw a touchdown pass to Mike Evans to give the Buccaneers a 10-6 lead with 11:16 left in the half.
The Saints rallied and the score was tied 13-13 at halftime. But misfortune struck again late in the third quarter.
With New Orleans leading 20-13 after scoring a touchdown on the opening drive of the half and forcing a Tampa Bay punt, the Saints' offense was on the move, from its 15-yard line to its 45 – aided by a third down pass interference penalty on Murphy-Bunting.
From there, on third-and-2, Brees completed a pass to Cook as the tight end crossed the field from right to left. But Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. tracked Cook from behind after an 8-yard gain, and stripped the ball out of Cook's right-arm cradle. Linebacker Devin White recovered at the 42 and returned it 18 yards, to the Saints' 40 with 4:30 left.
Five plays later, Brady found running back Leonard Fournette in the middle for a 6-yard touchdown pass, to tie the score at 20-20 with 2:26 left in the quarter.
The Saints never crossed midfield again, and two more interceptions helped position Tampa Bay for another field goal and touchdown. But the first interception, and the lost fumble, helped prevent New Orleans from capitalizing when it appeared the Saints were in position to exert some control.