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Saints fall in season finale to Bucs, but still win NFC South

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It wasn’t a pretty day for the Saints, but they’re still NFC South champions and will host the Panthers.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints are NFC South champions, despite losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-24. The Saints won the coin toss and elected to defer, and the Bucs would start things out with an impressive drive on offense. Two near picks by Manti Te’o and Ken Crawley could have got the defense off the field, but ended up getting a one-yard Peyton Barber touchdown on a 14-play, 75-yard drive.

It was extremely short-lived, as Alvin Kamara took the ensuing kickoff 106 yards to the house. That was a franchise record, by the way. The Bucs were on the move to try to respond, but it ended poorly, as Jameis Winston found Marcus Williams for a Saints interception. The Saints would capitalize, going on a 6-play, 65-yard drive that was capped off by another Alvin Kamara touchdown, this time from 7 yards out via a rush.

The Bucs offense would tie things up after going on a 12-play, 75-yard drive. Jameis Winston would punch it in on 3rd and Goal thanks to a second effort, but Patrick Murray’s extra point would be no good. Tampa Bay was 9-of-10 on 3rd Down with 5:50 to play in the half.

On the next Saints possession, Michael Thomas would make some franchise history, notching his 100th catch to surpass Jimmy Graham’s 2011 record (99). Sean Payton called some 4th Down trickery reminiscent of Les Miles and LSU, but it would fail miserably and end with Wil Lutz getting clocked by Kwon Alexander. Had Tony McDaniel had a better block, it would have ended much differently.

It didn’t hurt the Saints, as Craig Robertson would pick off Winston just a couple of plays later. Unfortunately, they just ended up going three-and-out with their offensive possession. Cameron Jordan ended up getting his 13th sack of the season, which netted him a $250,000 bonus, as the Saints entered halftime up 14-13.

After stalling out on their first offensive possession of the second half, the Bucs started to move down the field after being pinned at their own 10-yard line. Poor execution and a busted coverage led to a 43-yard Adam Humphries catch to flip the field. Then, Jameis Winston happened. He’d throw into quadruple coverage trying to hit Mike Evans, but Marcus Williams came up with his second interception of the day.

The Saints offense would finally help get some more points on the board, going on a 9-play, 50-yard drive that ended with a Lutz 48-yard field goal to extend the lead to 17-13. On the drive, a 40-yard connection from Brees to Kamara helped the Saints backfield duo of Kamara and Mark Ingram become the first tandem to each amass over 1,500 yards from scrimmage.

Fast forward to the final quarter, which gave the Bucs an early touchdown to take the lead 20-17 after Tommylee Lewis went backwards and fumbled the punt return to the Bucs. The Saints would get pinned deep inside their own territory to start at their own 8-yard line, but would rattle off a 13-play, 92-yard drive to take a 24-20 lead when Brees connected with Zach Line on a 2nd and Goal from the 3-yard line.

The Bucs would counter with a Patrick Murray field goal to bring the score to 24-23 with 4:31 left in the game. The Saints had a decent looking drive going to finish, but some mistakes and a Brees sack gave the ball back to the Bucs right at the 2-minute warning. They’d convert a 4th and 10 deep in their own end zone, and end up losing after Winston found Chris Godwin with 10 seconds to play.