TAMPA, Fla. -- New Orleans put the game in Drew Brees' hands, and Tampa Bay took it right away.
The relentless Buccaneers defense pressured the NFL's leading passer all afternoon, then intercepted him twice in the closing minutes Sunday to stay atop the NFC South with a 23-20 victory over the Saints.
"You know you're going to get opportunities," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said after Brees threw on nine of New Orleans' first 11 plays and finished with 47 attempts on a rainy day that might have discouraged some other quarterbacks.
Instead it was Tampa Bay's defense, sometimes overlooked during the team's 9-3 start, that got the best of the Saints star.
"We've got to relish this because we feel like we're one of the best secondaries in the league, and I think our performance today, at least in our minds, proves it," Barber said.
Brees, on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season yardage record, threw for 296 yards and two touchdowns but also was picked off three times -- once in the end zone on a pass that Barber tipped to Cato June -- and sacked once.
"We had our perfect chances out there and we didn't take advantage of it," Brees said. "It's disappointing, very disappointing. It's probably one of the more disappointing losses I have ever been a part of."
The victory was the fourth straight for Tampa Bay. The Bucs are 6-1 since Jeff Garcia regained the starting quarterback job, which he lost after a poor performance in a season-opening loss against the Saints (6-6).
Garcia was limited to 119 yards passing, but threw 38 yards to Antonio Bryant for a third-quarter touchdown that put the Bucs up 20-10. Carnell "Cadillac" Williams also scored on an 8-yard run, his first TD since a career-threatening knee injury 14 months ago.
"That was big," said Williams, who gained 20 yards on four carries in his second game since being activated from the physically unable to perform list. "I was just glad that down around the goal line they called my number."
Brees was 25-of-47 and wiped out a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit by throwing a 20-yard TD pass to Pierre Thomas and taking advantage of a short punt to tie the game on Garrett Hartley's second field goal with 5:34 to go.
With the game on the line, though, he couldn't stop New Orleans from falling to 0-17 when trailing after three quarters under coach Sean Payton.
"We talk all the time about [putting games away in the fourth] despite what happens through the entire course of the game. We had a chance, at least two chances, and we didn't take them at all," Brees said.
"Give them credit because they played very well and knew what to do to throw us off offensively and make the plays on defense. What hurts really is that we had a chance to win it in the end and didn't take it."
A week after gaining 418 yards in a 51-29 rout of Green Bay, the Saints' high-powered offense sputtered until Brees put together a six-play, 72-yard drive just before the half to give New Orleans a 10-6 lead on his 13-yard TD pass to Lance Moore.
Brees hurt the Bucs with three completions of 39 or more yards in the season opener, but Tampa Bay's secondary did a much better job this time. Marques Colston's 37-yard reception set up the Saints' first TD, though Brees' longest completion other than that was 22 yards to Colston in the first quarter.
The Bucs took control early in the third quarter, marching 46 yards to regain the lead on Williams' first TD since Sept. 23, 2007, against St. Louis -- the week before he torn the patellar tendon in his right knee.
Special teams has been a big part of Tampa Bay's success, and return man Clifton Smith was a huge factor again Sunday. He ran down Glenn Pakulak's 70-yard punt and raced 42 yards to the Saints 39 to set up a second-quarter field goal, then had a 12-yard return to the New Orleans 43 to position the Bucs for Garcia's TD throw to Bryant.
Josh Bidwell's 18-yard punt helped the Saints tie the game, but he redeemed himself with a 37-yarder that pinned the Saints at their own 7 with just under four minutes to go. Phillips intercepted a pass intended for Colston to set up the winning field goal, then Buchanon sealed the victory with his pick on a throw intended for Moore with a little more than a minute left.
"I really feel something special about this team. This is a championship team. We continue to get better; the chemistry continues to grow," Williams said.
"We've got a lot of unselfish guys on this team that play roles. If we keep it rolling like this, the sky's the limit for this team."
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