As suddenly as the Buccaneers tied the score was as suddenly as New Orleans won with an interception by linebacker James Allen to send the Saints marching home with a 26-20 overtime win.
Before Allen's heroics, the Bucs had two shots in overtime to get into field goal range but came up short both times. After running back Aaron Stecker returned the overtime kickoff to the Tampa Bay 42-yard line the Pewter Pirates could only make one first down and were forced to punt at the Saints' 39-yard line.
After holding the Saints to no yards after the punt, Tampa Bay again was only able to get one first down and only advance to the Saints' 48-yard line. That meant Gramatica would need to kick either a 56- or 65-yarder in overtime into a pretty stiff cross wind and head coach Jon Gruden thought better of that and punted on both occasions.
The kicking game, which plagued the Buccaneers throughout the course of the contest with a missed field goal and a blocked one as well, let the Bucs down in overtime. On fourth-and-9 from their own 7-yard line, Tampa Bay punter Tom Tupa was forced to try and throw from his own end zone.
New Orleans running back Fred McAfee blew in off the Bucs' right side untouched. This made Tupa stop his punting motion because McAfee was on top of him before he could punt the football and it would have been surely blocked.
Tupa tried to shovel the ball off the free safety John Howell, who was the personal protector blocker, rather than get tackled for a safety, but Allen stepped in front of the wounded duck at the goal line to give the Saints a big NFC South division victory on opening day.
New Orleans took the opening kickoff and marched right down the field to take the early advantage. The big play in the drive was a pass from quarterback Aaron Brooks, who was under little pressure and took two big hits from defensive Simeon Rice and defensive tackle Anthony McFarland as he was releasing the ball in the first drive, to tight end David Sloan for 12 yards to the Tampa Bay 47-yard line. Sloan made the catch over defensive end Greg Spires who had dropped back in coverage when the Buccaneers went with a zone blitz on third-and-7.
When the Bucs defense finally stiffened at their own 10-yard line, kicker John Carney split the uprights from 28 yards out to give the Saints a 3-0 lead at 8:13 of the first period.
On their next possession the Saints stretched their lead to 6-0. Carney hit another field goal, but this one was more exciting. His 41-yarder caromed off the left upright and dropped straight down just over the crossbar to double the New Orleans lead with 24 seconds left in the opening stanza.
The big factor in the first period was that New Orleans controlled the ball and the clock with an extremely effective short passing game. The Bucs stopped the running game cold allowing the Saints only 14 yards on seven carries with running back Deuce McAllister getting 13 of those yards in six attempts.
What Tampa Bay couldn't do was stop the short passing game as Brooks finished the first quarter 10-of-15 for 86 yards. An even bigger problem was the fact that the Saints' signal caller was only pressured when the Bucs came with their blitz packages. The Buccaneers couldn't put any effective pressure on Brooks with their front four when the Saints were throwing the football.
It also didn't help the Pewter Pirates' cause when the offense ran only seven plays compared to 22 for the Saints. Tampa Bay could only muster two first downs and 24 yards of offense with the most telling statistic a big goose egg under the completed pass column.
Quarterback Brad Johnson, who was hit or harassed on nearly every one of his 52 pass attempts, was 0-for-2 and sacked once in the first 15 minutes of play, but he felt the big problem was the lack of field time in the first period.
"The Saints controlled the clock in the first quarter," Johnson said. "We only had one possession and we couldn't find any rhythm in the passing game or the running game."
The Buccaneers finally dented the scoreboard at 13:20 of the second quarter. Gramatica scored the first points for the Bucs of the 2002 regular season to cut the lead in half. The Bucs started the drive impressively with a 21-yard jaunt by running back Michael Pittman. On the play, wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson kicked out the corner and right guard Todd Washington sealed a would-be tackler to allow Pittman to rumble 21 yards on a sweep to the left.
Pittman finished off the run by running over free safety Jay Bellamy to give a lifeless Tampa Bay offense some spark. The drive finally fizzled at the Saints' 34-yard line and Gramatica just slid a 52-yarder with the wind over the crossbar to make it 6-3.
After an exchange of punts, the Saints stretched their lead to 10 points. Brooks hooked up with tight end Boo Williams on a 32-yard skinny post. Brooks again had all day to look over the field and find Williams coming out of his break in front of the outstretch reach of strong safety John Lynch. This put New Orleans up 13-3 with 4:17 left in the second quarter.
The Bucs had one last chance to score before intermission. Defensive back Corey Ivy threw Tupa's 47-yard punt out of the end zone to fellow defensive back Dwight Smith, who downed it on the Saints' 2-yard line with 54 ticks left in the first half. After forcing the Saints into a three-and-out, Tampa Bay had excellent field position after a 34-yard punt by New Orleans was downed at their own 39-yard line with 25 seconds left in the half.
After moving the ball to the 28-yard line Gramatica had a 47-yard field goal blocked by Saints defensive end Darren Howard, which maintained the Saints' 10 point lead.
Whatever speech Gruden used at halftime it immediately breathed life into a listless Bucs offense. Tampa Bay took the kickoff and put their first 2002 touchdown on the board at 11:34 of the third period. Johnson found wide receiver Keenan McCardell on a quick out just over the goal line on the left. That cut the Saints' lead to 13-10 and it looked like momentum had shifted back to the Buccaneers.
New Orleans crushed that momentum swing in just six plays to pad their cushion back to 10 points. Brooks found rookie receiver Donte Stallworth for a 41-yard touchdown reception. The first-round draft pick from the University of Tennessee caught an out-and-up route between corner back Brian Kelly and free safety Dexter Jackson and went into the end zone untouched to up the Saints lead to 20-10.
The Bucs caused the only turnover of regulation and it occurred late in the third quarter. Linebacker Al Singleton deflected a Brooks aerial into the waiting arms of linebacker Derrick Brooks to stop a Saints drive at the Tampa Bay 23-yard line. Brooks returned the pigskin to the Buccaneers' 46-yard line and it looked like the Pewter Pirates were going to climb back into the contest.
After Johnson hit running back Mike Alstott on a 15-yard pass, the Bucs couldn't sustain another first down. Gramatica was forced to try a 53-yarder that had enough leg, but was wide left.
Tampa Bay finally got the offense on track and moved within a field goal late in the fourth quarter. Reserve wide out Joe Jurevicius made a superb juggling catch of a pass from Johnson that culminated a 12-play drive with all but one pass plays. The 6-foot-5 wide receiver used his height to his advantage to tip the ball to himself on the five yard line and went the rest of the way to cut the deficit to 20-17.
The Bucs forced the Saints into a three-and-out but were forced to use their final two time outs. Tampa Bay started their final drive in regulation from their own 26-yard line and, after nine pass plays and a sack sprinkled in, tied the score with a beat-the-clock field goal by Gramatica as time expired to send the game into overtime only to have victory snatched from their grasp in the extra period.
The Bucs lost their first home opener since losing a 17-10 decision to the New York Giants in 1999, and the Gruden era in Tampa Bay was kicked off with a heartbreaking loss in overtime.
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