The New Orleans Saints were without Drew Brees yet again on Sunday, but yet again, they looked like surefire playoff contenders, outlasting their rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a four-touchdown showing from fill-in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, a monster performance from Michael Thomas out wide, plus some front-four dominance to secure a 31-24 victory and improve New Orleans to 4-1 on the season.
Let's take a deeper dive into how the Saints held on to remain atop the South:
Why the Saints won
Most notable was Bridgewater, who defied critics suggesting he doesn't take any shots beyond 10 yards down the field by absolutely carving up Tampa Bay's secondary. The Bucs' pass defense came in with problems and lost Carlton Davis to an ejection, but still, Bridgewater couldn't have been much better, completing 26 of 34 passes for 314 yards and four touchdowns -- one of the best stat lines of his career. Thomas was a big help, hauling in 11 passes for 182 yards and two scores, roasting Tampa's defensive backfield on the regular; so, too, was New Orleans' defense, which surrendered two Chris Godwin touchdowns but otherwise got after Winston all day, logging six sacks and eight QB hits while limiting Tampa running backs Ronald Jones and Peyton Barber to a combined 67 yards on the ground.
Why the Buccaneers lost
It'd be easy to point at Tampa's O-line, which couldn't consistently hold up for Winston, or even the secondary, which saw three different Saints complete passes and let Thomas run wild down the field, but we knew those things would be potential problems coming in. Tampa really lost this game because of a negative X-factor: coaching. Bruce Arians infamously handed the New York Giants a win a few weeks ago, and this week, while he was far from the sole reason Tampa couldn't steal an NFC South win, he opted to play it safe at several times when aggressiveness could've thrust the Bucs back into the game. That's not to say Tampa would've converted on a fourth-and-short or stopped the Saints from sacking Winston on a first-and-15 pass, but Arians' decision to punt it away or run it up the gut during those kinds of scenarios arguably hurt his own team's momentum.
The Saints owned a seven-point lead at halftime, then nearly took a step backward early in the third, when Arians justifiably challenged a non-offensive pass interference call on Thomas early in New Orleans' first drive of the quarter. The officiating crew upheld Thomas' catch, however, giving the Saints 42 yards, putting Bridgewater and Co. in Bucs territory, and then paving the way for Teddy to hit a wide-open Ted Ginn Jr. on a 33-yard touchdown pass to put the Saints up 24-10. Tampa pulled within one score later in the game, but this series really made it an uphill battle.
Play of the game
Thomas had a number of big plays, as did Godwin, but it was his sideline grab late in the third quarter -- with the Saints backed up in their own territory, facing a third-and-10 -- that showed why he's a legitimate playmaker. Bridgewater floated a nice ball toward the right side of the field, and Thomas laid himself out for a diving 20-yard reception to give the Saints the first down and keep the ball in New Orleans' hands.
"Talk about our week of preparation leading up to today, it was a great week. Coach talked about playing with energy, playing this game off emotion and having tempo. I think we did a good job of doing that today. We're going to live in this moment." -- Teddy Bridgewater
Those words from Bridgewater paint a precise picture of why the Saints came away with the victory: They controlled the pace of the game, and they weren't short on big-play ability, aka "energy." And they're fitting coming from Bridgewater, who epitomized the performance with his own breakout, easily the most energetic of his starts in place of the injured Brees.
The Saints (4-1) will hit the road on Oct. 13 for what figures to be a feisty matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-3). The Buccaneers (2-3), meanwhile, will travel all the way to London for a Sunday morning showdown with the rival Carolina Panthers (3-2) that same day.
Relive the entire Bucs-Saints battle right here:
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