PLAYER(S) OF THE GAME
They were quick to give a lot of the credit for their success to the defensive line, but it was the players in the Bucs secondary who played the biggest role in this victory. Jermaine Phillips and Phillip Buchanon had game-altering fourth-quarter interceptions, and it was Ronde Barber's tip of a ball in the end zone that led to a third interception. The offense only turned one of those picks into points. But it wasn't so much the points that were scored off those picks that mattered, it was the points that were prevented. Without those three plays the Bucs probably wind up losing this game.
Even Saints coach Sean Payton had to admit afterward the Bucs simply made good plays on all three occasions. Throw in the fact Phillips ranked second on the team with eight tackles and the fact Barber ranked third in tackles with seven and had two other pass breakups, and it's easy to see how this was a game decided largely by the play of the back third of the Bucs defense.
He didn't score a touchdown but rookie return man Clifton Smith did as much for the offense as anyone who did Sunday. Smith had two big returns - a punt return of 42 yards that helped set up a field goal in the first half and a kick return of 34 yards that set up Cadillac Williams' 8-yard touchdown run in the second half. Throw in a couple of other sizeable returns and Smith accounted for 158 total yards, more than any other player in the game outside of quarterbacks.
He didn't fumble either, which was an achievement in itself. Smith has had some trouble there, fumbling the ball once in each of the previous four games, but he proved again in this game he has the goods to be an instant energizer for his offense and a constant trouble spot for opponents.
We're still not sure what's going on with Joey Galloway. He played sparingly again Sunday, spending most of his time on the sideline under a long hooded raincoat. On one of the plays in which he did appear, though, he lined up wide with fellow split end Antonio Bryant on the other side of the field. That combination, dialed up by Gruden, created enough of a distraction to allow Bryant to get open down the seam, where he became the recipient of a 39-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Garcia.
After the play, Garcia ran over to the sideline and slapped Gruden on the butt in excitement about the play, which proved two things. The Bucs can successfully take chances deep downfield and they can get Galloway and Bryant on the field at the same time.
The official record will forever show it was Cato June who intercepted Drew Brees in the end zone on a second-and-2 play in the third quarter. Without Ronde Barber, however, June never makes that interception. Barber read the play off the snap and ran stride for stride into the end zone with intended receiver Jeremy Shockey.
Timing his leap perfectly, Barber jumped up just as the ball was reaching Shockey and slapped it away from its intended target and into June's hands. Barber said afterward he still couldn't figure out how he didn't get his other hand up to make the interception himself. In this case he didn't need another hand, he had June's.
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
This game marked the seventh time this year the Bucs have surrendered the first score. The Bucs, however, are 6-1 in those games. ... The victory was the 100th of Coach Jon Gruden's NFL career. At 45 years, 105 days old, Gruden became the third-youngest head coach to reach 100 NFL wins. Only John Madden and Bill Cowher reached the mark sooner. ... The last time the Bucs were 9-3 after 12 games was in 2002, the year they won the Super Bowl. ... WR Antonio Bryant led the Bucs with three receptions and 63 receiving yards. It was the seventh time this season he's led or tied for the lead in both receptions and receiving yards. ... Cato June's interception was his second as a Buccaneer, while Jermaine Phillips and Phillip Buchanon each recorded their second interception of the season.
DT Jovan Haye went down with a knee injury early in the second quarter and did not return. He spent most of the second half limping around on the sideline. He was replaced by Ryan Sims, who turned in several big plays, including a key pressure of Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
The defense will get all the headlines off this victory, but the offense played just as big a part in it and deserves an equal share of the credit. Led by a ground attack that returned to life and gained an average of 4.4 yards per carry, the Bucs held on to the ball for more than 29 minutes and limited New Orleans' possessions and scoring chances. That was a big part of the Bucs' game plan and they executed it to near perfection.
They still didn't move the ball inside the red zone the way they need to, but in this case that's nitpicking. On a day when the defense and special teams didn't contribute a great deal on the scoreboard, the offense produced enough to beat one of the league's true offensive juggernauts.