The New Orleans Saints failed to take advantage of field position and lost the turnover battle 4-0 in their 30-20 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Divisional round of the playoffs Sunday, Jan. 17 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
New Orleans had a 20-13 advantage with 4:41 remaining in the third quarter when Saints quarterback Drew Brees connected with tight end Jared Cook to convert a third-and-two before Cook fumbled the ball, giving possession to Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers capitalized with a touchdown, knotting the score up at 20. The Bucs scored the next 10 points to put the game away on advance to the NFC Championship Game next Sunday at the Green Bay Packers.
"They're all significant," Coach Sean Payton said about the turnovers. "It's hard to beat a team in the playoffs, in the divisional round of the playoffs, when you have that lopsided turnover ratio."
Brees was intercepted three times and the most crucial pick came with just over seven minutes remaining. With New Orleans trailing 23-20, Buccaneers linebacker Devin White stepped in front of a Brees pass for the interception that helped set up a Tampa Bay touchdown, extending the lead to double digits.
"A couple of them I probably shouldn't have thrown, or maybe forced it in there," Brees said during his postgame press conference. "I think we were probably a little off kind of on the overall execution. But at the end of the day, that's what this game came down to, was those turnovers, because all of those gave them the ball deep in our territory."
Brees, in his 20th season in the NFL and 15th with the Saints, finished 19-of-34 for 134 yards, one score to go along with the three interceptions.
When Brees was asked if this was his final game, he said: "I'm going to give myself an opportunity to think about the season and think about a lot of things, just like I did last year, and make a decision."
Second-year returner Deonte Harris had an electric first half for the Saints, returning the first punt of the game 54 yards after bouncing off the would-be tackler upon receiving the kick. Although New Orleans was set up with great field position, they had to settle for a 23-yard Wil Lutz field goal. With a 3-0 lead, Harris' second punt return went for a touchdown but was wiped out by a penalty for an illegal block by defensive end Carl Granderson. Harris had to leave the game in the second quarter with a neck injury. He did not return.
"Deonte was electric to start the game," Payton said.
After falling behind 10-6 in the second quarter, Payton dug deep into his bag of tricks for the Saints' first touchdown. Running back Alvin Kamara lined up as a wildcat quarterback, tossed the ball to running back Ty Montgomery who flipped it to backup quarterback Jameis Winston who a hit a wide-open Tre'Quan Smith with a 56-yard scoring pass with 8:08 to play before the half. Winston is the first No. 1 overall draft pick to throw his first career playoff touchdown against the team that drafted him.
Smith finished the contest with three receptions for 85 yards and two touchdowns. Smith is the fourth Saint with two receiving touchdowns in a playoff game, joining Thomas (2017 Divisional), Jimmy Graham (2011 Divisional), and Willie Jackson (2000 Wild Card).
Star running back Alvin Kamara carried the ball 18 times for 85 yards with a long of 17.
Defensively, New Orleans struggled to get pressure on Bucs quarterback Tom Brady. After an early sack by linebacker Demario Davis, the Saints failed to bring down the future Hall of Famer for the rest of the contest.
Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins led the team with 11 total tackles. Star receiver Michael Thomas did not have a catch.
For complete Saints-Buccaneers stats click here.