NEW ORLEANS -- With several minutes gone in the fourth quarter on Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were without their top three wide receivers, top two left tackles, No. 1 center and primary third-down back. Their leading rusher was ostensibly playing on one leg after being listed as questionable on the injury report, and their quarterback was showing the type of frustration he normally causes opponents.
Here's how bad things were against the Saints: To that point, Tom Brady's best throw was a sideline slam of his tablet. His best soft toss was his helmet to the sideline turf. So much was going wrong for him and the offense, from injuries, to missed blocking assignments on fourth-and-short, to turnovers in the red zone, that it was a wonder the teams were even tied on the scoreboard.
But football teams with championship DNA look forward, not backward, and when they had the opportunity to leave their offensive struggles behind, Brady showed why he is considered the greatest to ever play the game. He stood tall in the pocket, on third-and-5, and waited and waited before sending a perfectly placed ball to the back corner of the end zone for Breshad Perriman, who grabbed it for a 28-yard touchdown.
The score -- which came one possession after a midfield scuffle resulted in two ejections, including Pro Bowl WR Mike Evans -- gave the Bucs their first lead of the afternoon and set them en route to an important 20-10 victory over the Saints before a raucous crowd of 70,040 in the Caesars Superdome.
The standings will show it was only one game, but emotionally the outcome was so much more. The Bucs had lost seven consecutive regular-season games to the Saints and had not won in New Orleans since 2018. They had gone seven consecutive quarters without scoring a touchdown against them and appeared on the verge of making it eight until Brady found Perriman, who's perhaps the team's fifth-best wideout.
Either way, the result was not going to make or break their season, but it could go a long way toward helping them navigate future adversity, a point coach Todd Bowles seemed to hint at when he told me in the locker room, "We're finally getting mentally tough."
There is no way to win a game like Sunday's without the right mental makeup. The Bucs, 2-0 and alone atop the NFC South standings, had to overcome so much, like playing without injured wideouts Chris Godwin (hamstring) and Julio Jones (knee), losing Evans, not having center Ryan Jensen (knee), losing third-down back Gio Bernard to injury, having running back Leonard Fournette playing on a bad hamstring, losing a fumble at the Saints' 26, and being stopped on fourth-and-1 at New Orleans' 8. But as I walked away, one thought kept gnawing at me:
Can the Bucs continue to win games while losing players?
They lost Jensen in training camp. Jones and Godwin, as well as left tackle Donovan Smith (elbow), were inactive. They lost replacement tackle Josh Wells (calf) and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks (foot) to injury just before the half. And they are relying on a handful of guys who are playing through physical ailments, like Fournette and Evans.
For the time being, the attrition has not affected them in terms of wins and losses -- and perhaps it won't as long as their defense continues to show out. When you have a unit as good as Tampa Bay has, you should be in every game.
Brady will get a lot of platitudes for his touchdown throw to Perriman -- and he should -- but it would not have meant anything if not for the dominance of Tampa's defense, which gave up a field goal on its opening series, then shut down the Saints.
Tampa Bay's final seven defensive series ended accordingly: fumble recovery, interception, interception, interception return for touchdown, Saints touchdown, fumble recovery, downs. The Saints had eight offensive possessions in the second half; only one lasted longer than six plays -- and even that nine-play sequence ended with New Orleans losing a fumble.
"It just shows the resiliency, the heart, that a lot of guys have," said linebacker Lavonte David. "It goes back to complementary football. When we're out there, we always say we're battling against the opponent's defense as well as its offense. We've got to make more plays than their defense. We were able to rise to the challenge today. Everybody that needed to make plays, made plays. We ended up getting the win because of it. And getting a win in an environment like this, it's big. You want it, you got to go get it."
For three-plus quarters the Saints' defense appeared up for the challenge, but that's when cornerback Marshon Lattimore committed an athletic sin. After defending on a third-down incompletion, he waved his hand dismissively at Brady as Brady crossed his path to protest a non-interference call.
Brady immediately turned to Lattimore and began to jaw with him. That's when Fournette pushed Lattimore, who retaliated with a push or punch to the facemask. With that, it was on. Evans, who had been walking toward the sideline, then entered the fray and forcefully shoved Lattimore to the ground as a large scrum ensued near midfield.
"We in New Orleans. That's how it be. That's how it gets," Evans said. "He was a little too emotional; I don't know why. He threw a punch at one of my teammates and I can't let that happen."
Evans and Lattimore were ejected, taking the intensity to an even higher level. The question of how that environment would affect the teams was answered two plays later, as New Orleans quarterback Jameis Winston was intercepted by Jamel Dean when Winston tried to find Chris Olave on a deep post. It was uncharacteristic for Winston on the afternoon because he had played so efficiently, if not conservatively, up to that point.
But perhaps succumbing to the emotion from the scrum, he got greedy and paid a price. And then a Saints defense that had been playing so solidly began hurting itself, such as cornerback Bradley Roby being called for unnecessary roughness for hitting tight end Cameron Brate in the head area after a 9-yard completion on third-and-10. Two plays later, edge rusher Cam Jordan was called for holding on second-and-8, giving the Bucs another first down.
That was the opening Brady needed. Faced with constant pressure, he appeared headed toward one of his poorer statistical outings in recent years. But on third-and-5 from the New Orleans 28, he got tremendous protection, including a block by Fournette on a defensive tackle, and found Perriman for the Bucs' first lead of the day.
From there, the floodgates opened. An interception of Winston was followed by a Tampa Bay field goal. And another interception, Winston's third of the day, was returned 68 yards for a touchdown by safety Mike Edwards. Suddenly a 3-3 game was 20-3, and fans began making their way toward the exits.
"If we got Winston] behind, we knew he was going to force some things, and that’s when we was really going to make some big plays,” Bucs linebacker [Devin White said of his former teammate, who played for Tampa from 2015-19 after being drafted No. 1 overall by the franchise. "People forget we practiced against this guy -- one year for me, but Coach Bowles was able to see him live and go against him. … I feel like they were probably playing with emotion (after the scuffle), and we were playing with a strategic plan. We were still following our game plan. The first thing we said was, 'Hey, settle down. Let the game come to you, make big plays, get off the field.' That's what it was."
It would be harsh to say Winston of Now reverted to the Winston of Old, when he was known more for his turnovers than his touchdowns. But it is not a reach to say it was not one of his better performances, just as it was not one of Brady's better performances. The difference was, one QB made a play when the opportunity presented itself while the other did not.
Winston, who finished 25 of 40 for 236 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions, twice overthrew Olave on deep balls in the first three quarters. Had he hit just one of them, it potentially would have been a different game.
Meanwhile, Brady, who finished 18 of 34 for 190 yards and one touchdown and a lost fumble, made his one legitimate opportunity count.
"Coach (Byron) Leftwich says it's going to be a six-second fight, and on that play I had to pick up a damn three-tech by myself," Fournette said of the Brady-to-Perriman scoring strike. "Tom got the play off, he got the touchdown, and that's what it's all about."
Despite the win, Brady appeared displeased after the game, ending his press conference quicker than normal. He praised his teammates, notably his linemen for battling against a good front, but also mentioned the need for greater efficiency. He made just two stops on his way from the field to the locker room afterward -- he signed a banner that a fan lowered from the railing, and then hugged Evans, who had come out to greet his teammates.
Brady walked with a sense of urgency, tote bag in hand, intensity on his face. For players like him, the challenge of what awaits tends to take precedence over the immediacy of the moment. And with home games against Green Bay and Kansas City the next two weeks, perhaps he was wondering himself about whether the Bucs can continue to win games while losing players. It is a question only time can answer.