TAMPA -- The New Orleans Saints overcame a two-touchdown deficit and an unusual penalty that nullified an apparent Tampa Bay touchdown on the last play to escape with a 35-28 victory over the Buccaneers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
With five seconds left, the Bucs had the ball on fourth down at the Saints' 9-yard line. Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman scrambled out of the pocket to his left and completed what seemed to be a touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Williams in the back of the end zone.
However, the touchdown was nullified because Williams had been pushed out of bounds behind the end zone and then had come back into the end zone and was the first player to touch the ball, which is illegal.
The game-ending call was particularly unusual because in most cases it would have been illegal to push Williams out of the back of the end zone, which is obviously well beyond the 5-yard, no-chuck zone. However, because Freeman was out of the pocket at the time Williams was pushed out, the chuck was legal, so Williams was an ineligible receiver.
"The Saints did a great job covering the initial routes. I'm sitting in there going through (my progressions) and the O-line held up, started converging a little bit, but they gave me an opportunity to escape," Freeman said.
"(There) was such a rush of emotion thinking that you made the play to keep it going (into overtime), but obviously it didn't turn out that way."
Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano was already thinking ahead.
"Obviously we're going for one, and I'm thinking about overtime -- who's going to go do the coin toss and how we are going to go and all that," Schiano said. "That quickly left my mind when I saw the one official's hat off. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what that equals."
The penalty call gave the win to the Saints, who got a big day from Drew Brees. The quarterback completed 27 of 37 passes for 377 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.
On the Saints' opening possession, Bucs safety Ronde Barber intercepted a Brees pass that was tipped by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. One play later, Freeman hit receiver Tiquan Underwood for a 13-yard touchdown.
On Tampa Bay's next possession, running back Doug Martin took a delayed handoff 36 yards to put the Bucs up 14-0 with 6:05 remaining in the second quarter.
Brees and the Saints' top-rated passing offense responded with four consecutive touchdown drives, pulling away from a Buccaneers offense that couldn't keep pace despite a 420-yard passing performance by Freeman. The Bucs QB completed 24 of 42 passes and threw for three touchdowns.
The Saints' climb began when Brees found Colston on a crossing route for a 17-yard touchdown.
Darren Sproles caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from Brees, who hit Joseph Morgan for a dazzling 48-yard touchdown on New Orleans' next drive. Morgan avoided three Buccaneers defenders.
Just before halftime, backup tight end David Thomas caught a 20-yard strike from Brees, putting the Saints up 28-21.
"They came out fast, but what I like is that despite all a sudden being down 14 points, doing all of the things we said we wouldn't do, which was turn the ball over, give up some big plays and whatnot, we stayed very calm together and we were methodical," Brees said.
"To put together the drives that we did -- four in a row, and the defense coming up with some big stops to get (the ball) back, give us an opportunity for a two-minute drive at the end of the half to get more points, that was big."
The Saints' defense made a critical goal-line stand in the third quarter, following a 95-yard catch and run by Tampa Bay receiver Vincent Jackson, who was tackled by safety Malcolm Jenkins at the Tampa Bay 1-yard line.
New Orleans stuffed Bucs running back LeGarrette Blount on three running attempts, then pressured Freeman and brought him down for a loss on fourth down.
Brees said it caused a huge swing in momentum.
"All a sudden, they're about to tie the game, and Malcolm (Jenkins had) an unbelievable individual effort to run Vincent Jackson down," Brees said. "Now in their minds, they're thinking, 'Hey, we went for it on fourth down because now we've got them pinned back and we're just expecting to stop them and have them punt it to us and get great field position.' But we had a different plan in mind."
The Saints marched 95 yards and began to pull away with a 5-yard touchdown run from Pierre Thomas, capitalizing on an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on a field-goal attempt.
"I know this team can come alive no matter what, but this is a fighting team," Thomas said. "We're going to keep fighting no matter what comes at us."
The Bucs came back in the fourth quarter on Freeman's 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dallas Clark, then nearly tied the game in the final seconds.
The Saints improved to 2-4 with their second consecutive win after a poor start. The Bucs, also 2-4, have a quick turnaround, facing the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday night.
NOTES: Linebacker Jonathan Vilma returned to action for the Saints after being on the physically unable to perform list. He did not start, but he finished with one quarterback hurry and one pass breakup. Vilma is playing while appealing his one-year suspension for his alleged involved in the bounty case against the Saints. "To go through the things that he's gone through individually, then to just kind of break through and get a chance to be out there with his teammates -- he spoke to us last night, got us all fired up -- we had to come out here and play well," Saints receiver Lance Moore said. ... Moore led the Saints with 121 receiving yards. ... The Saints were without star tight end Jimmy Graham, who is recovering from an ankle injury. He did not make the trip to Tampa. ... Jackson's 95 yard catch-and-run was the longest reception in Buccaneers history. ... Jackson set a franchise record for most receiving yards in a single game with 216. ... Freeman's 420 yard-passing performance was a career high and the third-highest total in Buccaneers history.