Saints fumble away game

Published 2:29 pm Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Sean Payton and Jon Gruden both took calculated risks.

Symbolic of how this season has played out for their teams, Payton’s risk backfired for the New Orleans Saints, while Gruden’s all but won Tampa Bay the NFC South Division.

Devery Henderson fumbled an awkward toss from Reggie Bush on a trick play, allowing backup quarterback Luke McCown to drive Tampa Bay for a touchdown with 17 seconds left that lifted the Buccaneers to a 27-23 triumph over New Orleans on Sunday.

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Executed cleanly, Payton’s call might have produced a backbreaking first down as the Saints sought to run out the last three minutes with a 23-20 lead.

Instead, Tampa Bay’s Javon Haye recovered the fumble at the Saints 37.

Three plays later, when Tampa Bay faced a fourth-and-1 at the Saints 28, Gruden first sent out his field goal team to go for the tie, then called them back and sent the offense out again. Earnest Graham gained a couple yards to extend the winning drive.

“It shows coach had a lot of faith in us and I am glad he had the confidence in our line to take it to them,” Graham said. “The call won us the division. We are in the driver’s seat now.”

The victory gave Tampa Bay (8-4) a three-game lead in the NFC South Division with only four games left.

New Orleans (5-7), meanwhile, is now on the brink of missing the playoffs after going to the NFC championship game a season ago.

“That’s a disappointing loss and probably the worst job I’ve done as head coach since we’ve been here,” said Payton, now in his second season as a head coach. “Obviously, I regret the play call. It cost us the game.”

A strikingly similar play, which Payton dubbed “the Superdome Special,” debuted during the Saints’ memorable Monday night victory over Atlanta in their first game back in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina last year. Bush lined up as a slot receiver, took a handoff on what looked like an end-around, then tossed the ball to Henderson on a reverse. Back then, it went for an 11-yard touchdown and sent the Superdome crowd into an ecstatic frenzy.

This time, it yielded gasps, followed by a few boos and even some critical shouts regarding Payton’s competence.

Gruden by contrast, could do little wrong. With Jeff Garcia hobbled by a bruised lower back, Gruden started McCown, who until this week had been third-string.

Making his first start for Tampa Bay and fifth of his career, McCown completed his first 15 passes and wound up 29-of-37 for 313 yards and two touchdowns.

The winning score was a quick 4-yard pass to Jerramy Stevens, who had to outleap Jason Craft in tight coverage to make the catch.

“We tried to not play defensive with a young quarterback playing in his first game in a long time. Luke McCown responded,” Gruden said. “We knew we would have to score some points. The only way we were going to do it was by throwing it.”

Tampa Bay’s Graham had the best day among the running backs with 106 yards on 22 carries.

Joey Galloway continued to torment New Orleans’ secondary as he did early this season. His receptions of 41 and 60 yards set up first-half scores. He finished with seven catches for 159 yards.

The Saints made big plays to pull ahead on the scoreboard in the second half. Mike McKenzie returned an interception 53 yards for a score. In the first half, Drew Brees heaved a 45-yard touchdown pass to Henderson, who outran double coverage and made a diving catch in the back of the end zone.

Brees finished 17-of-23 passing for 179 yards and two touchdowns. His 40-yard completion to Marques Colston on a flea flicker set up a 4-yard TD pass to Terrance Copper.

The Saints appeared to have control when defensive end Will Smith sacked McCown for a safety that gave New Orleans a 23-20 lead with 3:44 to go. Tampa Bay was already down to one time out, so the Saints could have put the game away with a couple of first downs after fielding the free kick near midfield.

But on second down, Payton called the ill-fated reverse, a move Brees defended.

“We talked about it and he said he was going to make that play call in a critical situation … somewhere where they don’t expect it,” Brees said. “It was our job to execute it and we didn’t.”

Notes: McKenzie missed several plays on Tampa Bay’s last drive while being looked at by trainers. Payton said after the game that McKenzie was fine and did not offer any details about what was bothering the defensive back. … Tampa Bay had 466 total yards, far better than New Orleans’ 246, but could not open a big lead because two early drives ended with Matt Bryant’s field goals of 27 and 31 yards, and another drive ended with a missed field goal.