Saints trample Tampa to keep playoff hopes alive

Published 7:58 pm Sunday, December 31, 2023

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The tight NFC South race is going down to the final week of the regular season.

Derek Carr and the New Orleans Saints beat Tampa Bay 23-13 on Sunday, climbing back into a tie with the Buccaneers for first place in the NFL’s only division that doesn’t include a team with a winning record.

The Bucs (8-8) missed out on an opportunity to clinch their third straight NFC South title, sputtering most of the game offensively while Carr threw for two touchdowns and the Saints (8-8) intercepted Baker Mayfield twice and also forced two fumbles.

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Tampa Bay can still repeat as division champions by winning at last-place Carolina in next weekend’s regular-season finale.

If the Bucs lose to the Panthers, the winner of the finale between the Saints and Atlanta Falcons (7-9) in New Orleans will take the championship and host a playoff game the following week. The Saints could also earn the NFC’s final wild card spot with a win over the Falcons, coupled with losses by Seattle, Minnesota and Green Bay.

“Until we run out of time, I’m going to keep believing and keep working,” Carr said.

“We can’t feel satisfied because we got a win. We came in with the expectation to win. We had to win and we did,” the Saints quarterback added. “It feels good, but we’ve got to play another team that we haven’t beat this year. I’m looking forward to that match-up.”

Carr completed 24 of 32 passes for 197 yards without an interception to outshine Mayfield, who played some of the best ball of his career during the four-game winning streak that carried the Bucs to the brink of clinching a fourth straight playoff berth.

Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick from the 2018 draft, who’s with his fourth team in six seasons, threw for nine touchdowns vs. one interception during the four-game surge that followed a stretch in which Tampa Bay lost six of seven.

Pressured all game by the Saints pass rush, Mayfield went 22-of-33 for 309 yards with two interceptions and two TDs on Sunday. He was sacked twice and didn’t get the Bucs into the end zone until the fourth quarter, when Trey Palmer finished a 91-yard drive with a 22-yard TD catch.

Chris Godwin caught the second TD pass from Mayfield, scoring on a 47-yard reception with 1:37 remaining.

“Very disappointing, to be honest with you,” Bucs running back Rachaad White said. “This is sickening. We didn’t come out to play. They got on us out of the jump. We came out dry. No juice, no energy, and they hit us in the mouth.”

New Orleans led 17-0 at halftime, running twice as many plays (38 to Tampa Bay’s 19) and outgaining the Bucs 202 yards to 44 up to that point. Mayfield was 5 of 10 for 43 yards passing through two quarters, with most of his production coming on a 33-yard completion to Mike Evans.

After turning the ball over just two times during their month-long surge, the Bucs lost the turnover battle 4-0 to the Saints.

“It doesn’t matter who we played today. Good team, bad team, a college team, high school team, we wouldn’t have won,” Tampa Bay coach Todd Bowles said.

“Luckily we have one more game to seal this thing,” Mayfield said. “Again, backs against the wall. It’s somewhere we’ve been before. We’ve got to get it fixed and move forward. All you need is a chance to get in and we’re still sitting right where we need to be.”

The Saints played the second half without running back Alvin Kamara, who sprained an ankle late in the second quarter.

“I think it was on the sideline in the first half right before the end of the half when he got tackled on their sideline,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said. “He came in, got it looked at, came out after the half to test it out and just didn’t feel like he was going to be functional enough to help us win.”

New Orleans rebounded from a loss to the Los Angeles Rams that cost it a share of first place in the division the previous week.

“I’ve never questioned the mindset of our team, I’ve never questioned the toughness of our team, I’ve never questioned the compete of our team,” Allen said. “This game we play is hard. It’s not easy. There’s some times you’ve got to fight back after a tough loss. But I told the team last night we’ve got to handle hard well. And I thought the players did that.“