Winston guides Bucs to improbable win over Saints
TAMPA, Fla. — The New Orleans Saints have their first NFC South division title since 2011, but the ending of Sunday’s game was not what they had in mind.
It was a jaw-dropping defeat.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston tossed a 39-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Chris Godwin with nine seconds remaining — capping a desperation 95-yard drive with no timeouts — to produce a 31-24 victory over the Saints on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Despite the loss, the Saints backed into the franchise’s first division title since 2011 because the Carolina Panthers were beaten by the Atlanta Falcons.
The No. 4-seeded Saints (11-5) will host the No. 5 Panthers (11-5) in the first round next Sunday at 4:40 p.m. ET.
“Obviously, we didn’t finish the game the way we would’ve liked,” Saints head coach Sean Payton said. “We have to move on.”
The Bucs (5-11), just two days after second-year head coach Dirk Koetter learned he would be retained for the 2018 season, broke a five-game losing streak and Winston (28 of 51 for 363 yards) gained a measure of redemption after throwing three critical interceptions earlier in the game.
“The good guys won,” Koetter said.
The Saints, meanwhile, must move on and prepare for the postseason.
“It would’ve been much different in that locker room, emotionally, had we won that game,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “But the bottom line is I think we recognize there are things we can work on and improve upon.”
With the Saints leading 24-23, a New Orleans punt was downed at Tampa Bay’s 5-yard line. The Bucs had used all three of their timeouts on the previous New Orleans drive and faced a precarious situation at the two-minute warning.
After three consecutive incompletions, Winston found tight end Cameron Brate for a 12-yard gain on fourth-and-10 and the dramatic drive was on.
Winston had three completions to Mike Evans on the drive, then found Godwin, a Penn State rookie, open in the end zone for his first NFL touchdown. Winston added a 2-point conversion pass to Evans.
“Incredible drive by Jameis,” Koetter said. “Down at the 5-yard line, no timeouts. He was very patient, getting things in 10-yard chunks. He was very calm.”
“Thank God for Chris Godwin,” Winston said. “This is the perfect example of what winning does. When you win, it’s all good. When you lose, everything is a problem. We’re very happy right now.”
Earlier, it appeared that Brees (22 of 30 for 245 yards) had engineered the game-winner.
After the Bucs had taken a 24-20 lead and pinned the Saints on their 8-yard line following the kickoff, the Brees-led offense effectively sliced through Tampa Bay’s defense.
Brees completed 5 of 6 passes for 57 yards during the 13-play, 92-yard drive, including a 3-yard touchdown to running back Zach Line with 7:13 remaining.
The Bucs got a 42-yard field goal from Patrick Murray with 4:31 remaining, cutting New Orleans’ lead to 24-23. The Saints tried to run out the clock, but Brees was sacked on third-and-10. That led to the punt to the 5-yard line, which Winston converted into a massive opportunity.
Winston’s ill-advised end-zone pick to Saints rookie safety Marcus Williams, his second interception of the game, led to Wil Lutz’s 48-yard field goal and a 17-13 New Orleans advantage after three quarters.
Tampa Bay’s fate appeared more dire at the start of the fourth quarter when Winston was sacked on third down and the Bucs were forced to punt.
But Saints return man Tommylee Lewis was stripped by Tampa Bay’s Josh Robinson and the fumble was recovered by Isaiah Johnson, who scooped it up and scored from the 7. Murray’s extra-point attempt gave the Bucs a 20-17 lead.
Rookie running back Alvin Kamara accounted for both New Orleans touchdowns in the first two quarters, when the Saints assumed a 14-13 advantage at halftime.
NOTES: Brees finished with a 72.0 completion percentage to set an NFL single-season record, breaking the mark of 71.6 set by Minnesota’s Sam Bradford in 2016. Brees now holds three of the top four completion percentage marks. He completed 71.2 percent in 2011 to rank third and 70.6 in 2009 to tie for fourth, along with Cincinnati’s Ken Anderson (1982). ... Bucs WR Mike Evans became the third player in NFL history to have 1,000 or more receiving yards for the fourth straight year to open his career. Evans joined Randy Moss (Minnesota Vikings) and A.J. Green (Cincinnati Bengals). ... The Bucs were without inactive WR DeSean Jackson (ankle) and DE Robert Ayers (shoulder), while the Saints juggled their offensive line with the absence of LT Terron Armstead (thigh). Andrus Peat shifted from left guard to left tackle, while Senio Kelemete was plugged in at left guard. ... This was the 52nd meeting between the two teams and the Saints now lead the series, 32-20. ... The Saints have won seven straight at home, but now have lost three straight on the road. ... Buccaneers DT Gerald McCoy came into the game leading Tampa Bay with six sacks. He did not record any sacks on Sunday, but did have two tackles for loss.