The stout, strong defense the New Orleans Saints expected to play this season made a belated but welcome appearance Sunday.
The Saints forced three Tampa Bay turnovers and got three field goals from Doug Brien to break their three-game losing streak with a 9-3 NFL win at the Superdome.
The mistake-prone Bucs (3-4) managed only a single Michael Husted field goal against a New Orleans (4-3) defense which had allowed 30 points or more during the losing streak and entered Sunday's game rated 28th in the NFL.
"They could have won it," Saints coach Mike Ditka said. "We won it. It wasn't pretty. I understand all that, too. I don't really care. I think you have to build on what you have to build on. Right now, we have to find a way to win football games that maybe we're not supposed to win and try to create confidence in everybody."
With Tampa Bay's plethora of poor plays, the Saints proved that sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.
Tampa Bay failed to score points on two trips inside the Saints 15, losing a fumble on the opening drive and seeing Husted miss a 32-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter.
Husted also missed a 49-yarder early in the fourth quarter. Both field goals would have tied the score at the time.
The Bucs bungled two other plays which easily could have scored touchdowns.
On the play prior to Husted's missed 32-yard field goal attempt, Tampa Bay quarterback Trent Dilfer under threw a wide-open Bert Emanuel in the end zone. Emanuel appeared to have scooped the ball off the turf, but the referee ruled he trapped it.
In the fourth quarter, with the Saints leading 9-3 and six minutes to play, Dilfer fired a pass from his own 38 that looked like a sure six points. But wide receiver Jacquez Green, who was all alone at the Saints 25, simply missed the ball.
"They had opportunities out there today, they just didn't catch them," Saints linebacker Mark Fields said. "Oh heavenly Saint was just looking over us today. They dropped them. Thank God for that."
Meanwhile, the Saints offense played it smart and safe.
New Orleans managed only 12 first downs (one more than Tampa Bay) but they didn't give the game away. After committing four turnovers in a loss at Atlanta last week, the Saints lost just one turnover.
Brien booted field goals of 46, 50 and 41 yards, making him perfect on his 10 attempts this season.
"That's sort of the attitude I come into every game with," Brien said, "that any time I have the opportunity to place my foot on the ball, I'm going to do well."
Saints quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver, who completed 20 of 32 passes for 216 yards without an interception, set up Brien's first field goal.
After Saints safety Sammy Knight intercepted a Dilfer pass and returned it to the Saints 43 on the first play of the second quarter, Tolliver completed passes of 14 and 10 yards to tight end Cam Cleeland and running back Troy Davis to reach the Bucs 27. Brien's 46-yarder made it 3-0.
The Bucs tied the game on their first drive of the second half. Reidel Anthony's 32-yard kick return and Warrick Dunn's 17-yard run got the Bucs into Saints territory. The Saints defense stiffened and Husted kicked a 52-yard field goal to tie the score at 3.
Tolliver and the Saints grabbed the lead back for good on the next drive. Cleeland caught a 19-yard pass and Keith Poole hauled in a 26-yarder to the Bucs 32. Brien rescued the stalled drive with a 50-yard field goal.
He made it 9-3 with 7:15 left in the game with his 41-yarde, and the Saints defense made it stand up.
"There weren't a whole lot of plays to be made out there," Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy said. "The ones that were made, they made 'em."