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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers stayed in control of the NFC South last week, holding on for their third straight victory. Now they’re hoping their starting quarterback will be available as they take on the second-place New Orleans Saints in a key divisional matchup at the Superdome on Sunday.
The Buccaneers (7-4) held off Washington 19-13 at home last week, as Tampa Bay’s opportunistic defense preserved the win and the team’s two-game lead in the NFC South. The Bucs recovered four fumbles in a span of 16 Redskins’ offensive plays to set up a touchdown and three field goals in the first half. They held on for their third win in a row despite being outgained 316-15 and not making a first down after halftime.
“If you look at the stats, you’ll see that they had something ridiculous like 300 yards in the second half,” said cornerback Ronde Barber, who became the Bucs’ career interceptions leader when he stopped a threat at the Tampa Bay 31 with 3:40 left in the game.
“That’s something we’ll look back on and not be too happy about. But we’ll also look at the way we finished, and we always talk about finishing football games, and to have two turnovers to stall the (potential winning) drives, we’ll be happy about that.”
Washington had six takeaways, and Barber’s play along with Brian Kelly’s interception in the end zone with 17 seconds left allowed the Bucs to come away with the unlikely victory.
Tampa Bay, though, should have a much better chance to extend its win streak if it can rely on Jeff Garcia and not just its defense Sunday.
The veteran quarterback, who’s completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 2,135 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions this season, was hurt on the first play last week and left the game two plays later. He did return, but threw just four passes.
Coach Jon Gruden described the injury as a lower back bruise. He said the three-time Pro Bowl selection’s status is day to day.
Gradkowski took over for Garcia last week and went 9-of-19 for 106 yards. The second-year pro is 13-for-24 for 130 yards, no touchdowns and one interception this season. He started 11 games as a rookie in 2006 after Chris Simms suffered a season-ending spleen injury.
“I feel like I can heal fast,” Garcia said after Sunday’s game. “I’m going to listen to my body and allow it to tell me how I should take it.”
Gruden and the Bucs have to be hoping Garcia’s body gives him positive news by the end of the week. Tampa Bay will head into the Superdome looking to maintain its two-game advantage over a Saints team that averted a third straight loss with a 31-6 victory over hapless Carolina last week.
Drew Brees threw for 260 yards and three TDs and ran for another score, allowing New Orleans (5-6) to keep pace with Tampa Bay and keeping Sunday’s home matchup with the Bucs intriguing.
“It doesn’t get any better than it’s about to get: Tampa Bay coming to our house,” Brees said after New Orleans outscored Carolina 21-0 after halftime.
Brees and the Saints hope their big second half last week will help them get on another positive roll in what has been a streaky season. Picked to win the division, they started 0-4, the last defeat in that slide coming to the Panthers. They then won four straight, only to lose two in a row until getting well against a Carolina team that’s dropped five straight.
While the Bucs are dealing with uncertainty at quarterback, the Saints aren’t sure what they’ll get from Reggie Bush on Sunday. The running back was hampered by a bruised left shin last week and carried the ball only nine times for 32 yards. He caught three passes for 30 yards.
“Part of that plan was … where’s Reggie at with his shin? And if we can reduce some of the touches or some of the plays he plays, we’ll be able to help ourselves and fortunately it worked out,” coach Sean Payton said. “We’ll see how we approach Tampa Bay. We’re going to need these guys. It’s hard to go in with just one (running back) and they understand that.”
Tampa Bay had won three in a row and four of its last five at the Superdome going into last year’s Oct. 8 matchup, but Bush lifted the Saints to a thrilling home victory, returning a punt 65 yards for his first career touchdown with 4:17 remaining to give New Orleans a 24-21 win.
The Saints finished their first season sweep of the Bucs since 2002 by winning at Raymond James Stadium a month later, but New Orleans will be looking to avenge a 31-14 loss at Tampa on Sept. 16. Joey Galloway had four catches for 135 yards - including a 69-yard touchdown catch and a 24-yard scoring reception - and Garcia was 10-for-16 for 243 yards to carry the Bucs.
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