Brian Allee-Walsh

New Orleans Saints win NFC South championship despite last-second loss to Tampa Bay

New Orleans Saints running back Zach Line (42) scores despite Tampa Bay Buccaneers middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith (51) .
New Orleans Saints running back Zach Line (42) scores despite Tampa Bay Buccaneers middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith (51) . Associated Press

Who says you can’t win for losing?

The New Orleans Saints are living proof that it can happen, backing into the NFC South championship on New Year’s Eve Sunday after losing ugly to the gritty Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-24 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

The Buccaneers drove 95 yards in 11 gut-wrenching plays inside the final two minutes, scoring on a 39-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jameis Winston to wide receiver Chris Godwin with nine seconds remaining and a 2-point conversion.

While that TD pitch-and catch provided the winning points for Tampa Bay, it was made possible by a key 12-yard completion from Winston to tight end Cameron Brate on fourth-and-10 from the Buccaneers 5-yard line with 1:41 left.

Seven plays later, Godwin inserted the dagger, beating Saints conerback Ken Crawley on a perfectly thrown ball by Winston and making a winner of Bucs coach Dirk Koetter who learned Friday that he would be retained by ownership after a disappointing 5-11 season.

“They just out-competed us,’’ Crawley said. “We were slacking.’’

The way this season has played out, it seems fitting, perhaps, that Atalnta helped save the Saints from themselves. The Falcons whipped Carolina 22-10 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta, denying the Panthers a chance to steal the NFC South and enabling the Saints to win their first division championship since 2011.

The Saints and Panthers finished the regular season tied at 11-5 but New Orleans swept the season series between the teams to claim the division crown and and homefield advantage in the wildcard round.

As a result, the Saints will host the Panthers at 3:40 p.m. Sunday (Fox) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Atlanta earned the No. 6 seed and will face the NFC West-champion Los Angeles Rams in a wildcard game at 7:15 p.m. Saturday at LA Memorial Coliseum.

For much of Sunday, it appeared the Saints not only would defeat the Bucs and claim the division championship in the conventional manner but they also would vault past the Rams in the NFC seedings. But the Rams stayed put at No. 3 after getting walloped by the vastly improved San Francisco 49ers 34-13 because of the Saints loss to Tampa Bay.

The Saints squandered a stellar performance by Pro Bowl rookie running back Alvin Kamara, who scored on a 106-yard kickoff return and a 7-yard run and accounted for 283 all-purpose yards on 19 touches.

“It’s the second season, so there’s that element of, ‘hey, you won the NFC South,’ ‘’ Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Then, there’s that element of, ‘we’ve got a lot of work to do here,’ and get ready to play at our best next week at home.’’

Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.

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