By FRED GOODALL
AP Sports Writer
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A relieved Tom Brady stepped to the podium with a big smile.
“Just like we drew it up,” the seven-time Super Bowl quarterback said after throwing a pair of touchdown passes in the final three minutes Monday night to help the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rally from a 13-point deficit and beat the New Orleans Saints 17-16.
Clearly frustrated and on the verge of being held without a TD pass at home by the Saints for the third straight season, Brady led scoring drives of 91 and 63 yards and the Bucs (6-6) back to .500, tightening the team’s grip on first place in the weak NFC South.
“We’ve had a lot of games come down to the end,” Brady said. “Some we’ve won, some we’ve lost, which is why we’re 6-6. It’s not where we want to be, but we’ll keep fighting.”
The 45-year-old quarterback tossed a one-yard TD pass to rookie Cade Otton, pulling within 16-10 with exactly three minutes remaining. He got the ball back with 2:29 to go, then won it with a 6-yard throw to another rookie, Rachaad White, with three seconds left.
“They played hard, they showed grit. It was a complete team effort, obviously,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said. “Defense got the ball back, the offense cashed it in. Got it back one more time, cashed it in one more time.”
The Saints (4-9) swept the season series between the division rivals each of the past two seasons, holding Brady without a TD pass in a 38-3 New Orleans rout in 2020 and again in a 9-0 road victory in 2021.
Tampa Bay ended a seven-game, regular-season losing streak in the series with a 20-10 victory in Week 2, sacking Jameis Winston six times and forcing five turnovers.
Andy Dalton, who didn’t play in the earlier meetings, threw for 225 yards and a touchdown without an interception for New Orleans, however the Saints ultimately paid for having to settle for three field goals by Wil Lutz on drives deep into Bucs territory.
The Bucs rebounded from an overtime loss to Cleveland to extend their division lead over the Atlanta Falcons to 1½ games.
The last-place Saints missed out on an opportunity to pull into a tie for second with the Falcons. None of the four teams in the NFC South has a winning record.
“I’ve got to go into a bye week knowing that we should have beat this team,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “The first time we should have beat this team. This time we should have. … We should have beat a lot of other teams. We didn’t.”
Brady, who before the game exchanged greetings with the biggest prize on this winter’s baseball free agent market AL MVP Aaron Judge, finished 36 of 54 for 281 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bucs quarterback led a long field goal drive on the opening possession of the game, but only had sporadic success after that until finally get the Bucs in the end zone with help from a 44-yard pass interference on Saints cornerback Paulson Adebo.
Otton scored on the next play.
“Tom Brady is Tom Brady. He was meticulous in staying to the plan of his dink and dunk,” Jordan said. “He had the one prayer that he sent out there and got bailed out with the flag.”
A week after being shutout for the first time in 332 games, the Saints built a 10-3 halftime lead on Dalton’s 30-yard scoring pass to Taysom Hill and a 38-yard field goal set up by just the third interception Brady has thrown all season.
Demario Davis’ pick was also only the eighth takeaway New Orleans defense — by far a league-low — in 13 games. Defensive end Cameron Jordan later forced a fumble that the Saints turned into a 12-play, 7-minute, 20-second drive that Lutz finished with a 21-yard field goal, making it 13-3 late in the third quarter.
“We didn’t make the plays when they were there at the end of the game and they did. That’s what it came down to,” Dalton said. “We had opportunities for that game to be very different than what it was, and I feel like I’m a broken record saying the same thing. We just missed opportunities.”
Judge was on the sidelines before the game — posing for pictures, signing autographs and wearing a Mike Evans No. 13 Buccaneers jersey. The team also tweeted a short video of Brady greeting the slugger, who has an offseason home in Tampa, where the New York Yankees hold spring training. Judge set an American League record with 62 homers with the Yankees this year. He also led the AL with 131 RBIs and finished second with a .311 batting average.
Saints: Played without cornerback Marshon Lattimore (abdomen) for eighth consecutive game. Safety P.J. Williams was inactive, too, after suffering a knee injury the previous week against the 49ers. … Linebacker Zack Baun (ankle) left in the third quarter and did not return.
Buccaneers: All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs was inactive with a high ankle sprain. Tight end Cameron Brate (illness) and three defensive starters — cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (quadriceps) and safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. (ankle) and Mike Edwards (hamstring) — also sat out.
Buccaneers: Travel to San Francisco next Sunday.
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