TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—Even as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were slipping into hats commemorating their first NFC South crown in three years, linebacker Derrick Brooks was issuing a stern message to his teammates.
“It’s just the first leg of the championship—division, conference and Super Bowl,” the nine-time Pro Bowl selection said Sunday after the Bucs beat the New Orleans Saints 27-13 to guarantee themselves a home playoff game. “As good as this feels, we’re looking to feel even better next week.”
Tampa Bay (11-5) will host Washington next Saturday at Raymond James Stadium, where the Bucs are 6-2 this season.
“Everyone feels the same way we feel, that their chances are just as good as ours,” Brooks said. “If everybody is not feeling that way in this locker room, I hope to have a conversation with them.”
If the finale was any indication, complacency won’t be a problem.
Tampa Bay was assured a playoff berth when the Giants beat the Raiders on Saturday night, but needed to beat the Saints (3-13) to finish a worst-to-first division turnaround that few envisioned when the season began.
The Bucs lost 20 of 32 games and missed the playoffs the past two seasons, the first team in NFL history to win the Super Bowl and then post losing records the following two years.
“That was one of our goals, to win the NFC South, and we found a way to do it,” cornerback Ronde Barber said. “Regardless of what 2004 was all about, 2005 gave us a new opportunity. Everybody jumped at it, believed in it, worked for it.”
Joey Galloway has been a big part of the transformation, rebounding from injuries that sidelined him part of 2004 with 83 receptions for 1,287 yards, including TD catches of 7 and 4 yards from Chris Simms on Sunday.
Simms was 12-of-25 for 143 yards and had a crucial fourth-quarter interception overturned by instant replay. Meanwhile, Michael Pittman set up a field goal with a 64-yard run on his only carry, and rookie Carnell “Cadillac” Williams rushed for 81 yards on 22 carries.
The Saints, finishing a tumultuous season thrown into chaos by Hurricane Katrina, didn’t go down without a fight.
Todd Bouman threw for 265 yards and a touchdown and John Carney kicked two field goals to keep New Orleans within striking distance. But Dwayne White sacked Bouman, forcing a fumble the 273-pound defensive end picked and returned 35 yards to make it 27-13.
The loss was the 11th in 12 games for the Saints, who essentially played all 16 games on the road after Katrina forced them to flee New Orleans for San Antonio. The team met with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue on Friday and hopes to return to its Louisiana training facility later this month.
“This is not a 3-13 football team. They’ve been through a lot,” New Orleans coach Jim Haslett said. “I’m not happy with our record. But if you could have seen the circumstances, the things they went through, you’d be proud of this team.”
Players may be able to return to the team’s complex outside New Orleans by the middle of the month. However, Haslett’s future as coach is uncertain. He expects to meet with general manager Mickey Loomis on Monday, and at some point with owner Tom Benson.
“I have kind of three emotions going, to be honest with you. One is, I’ve been here eight years total, six years as head coach. I feel like part of the community and these players,” he said. “Part of me says maybe it’s time for a change because I think, as any coach nowadays, you can get stuck somewhere too long.
“The third part is the unknown. What happens if it happens? It’s not for certain you’ll be a head coach again or even want to be right now. To be honest with you, I’m ready for whatever happens.”
The Saints pulled within 17-13 on Carney’s 24-yard field goal with 12:06 remaining, then nearly put themselves into position to take the lead when linebacker Ronald McKinnon dived and appeared to intercept a tipped pass at Tampa Bay’s 25.
Bucs coach Jon Gruden challenged the interception, and a replay showed the ball hit the ground before McKinnon gained possession.
Given a reprieve, Simms took control. Completions of 20 yards to Galloway and 22 yards to Alex Smith, as well as a 14-yard run by Williams, moved the Bucs into position to go up 20-13 on Matt Bryant’s 26-yard field goal.
Bouman completed 25 of 37 passes, including a 24-yard TD throw to Devery Henderson in the second quarter. He was sacked four times and intercepted twice.
While some of the Saints expressed relief their season is finally over, running back Aaron Stecker talked about how proud he was to be part of the team.
“What we went through is minute if you compare it to what people in New Orleans went through, especially close to where the levees broke. They lost everything,” Stecker said. “I’m proud of everybody. I’m glad I was part of this team. This will be a memory for a lifetime.”
Galloway’s TD catches were his ninth and 10th, setting a Tampa Bay season record. … New Orleans WR Joe Horn was limited because of a sore hamstring and caught one pass for 11 yards.