Sean Payton waited a long time to bring back the trick play he dubbed "the Superdome Special."
He picked the wrong time.
Devery Henderson fumbled a late, awkward toss from Reggie Bush, allowing backup quarterback Luke McCown to drive Tampa Bay for a touchdown with 17 seconds left that lifted the Buccaneers yesterday to a 27-23 triumph over host New Orleans.
The victory gave Tampa Bay (8-4) a comfortable three-game lead in the NFC South Division with only four games left.
"That's a disappointing loss and probably the worst job I've done as head coach since we've been here," said Payton, now in his second season as the Saints' coach. "Obviously, I regret the play call. It cost us the game."
A strikingly similar play debuted during the Saints' dramatic victory over Atlanta in their first game back in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It was a reverse on which Bush lined up as a slot receiver, took a handoff on what looked like an end-around, then tossed the ball to Henderson on a reverse. Back then, it went for an 11-yard touchdown and sent the Superdome crowd into an ecstatic frenzy.
This time, it yielded gasps, followed by a few boos and even some critical shouts regarding Payton's competence.
New Orleans (5-7) is now on the brink of missing the playoffs after going to the NFC Championship Game a season ago.
Even Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden's decision to start third-string quarterback McCown instead of Jeff Garcia (bruised lower back) worked against the Saints.
Making his first start for Tampa Bay and fifth of his career, McCown (29-for-37, 313 yards) completed his first 15 passes and threw for two touchdowns.
The winning score was a quick 4-yard pass to Jerramy Stevens, who had to outleap Jason Craft to make the catch.
The Saints appeared to seize control of the game when defensive end Will Smith sacked McCown for a safety that gave New Orleans a 23-20 lead with 3:44 to go. Tampa Bay was already down to one time out, so a couple of first downs might have put it away.
But on second down at midfield, Payton called for the ill-fated reverse. Bush had trouble with the handoff, then his pitch was a little late and off target. Henderson reached for it but couldn't bring it in, and the ball squirted away from him when he tried to dive on it.
Jovan Haye recovered for Tampa Bay at the Saints 37.
Tampa Bay was quickly faced with a fourth-and-1 at the Saints' 28. Gruden first sent out his field goal team to go for the tie, then called them back and sent the offense out again. Earnest Graham gained a couple yards to extend the drive.
Graham followed up his fourth-down conversion with a catch over the middle for a 21-yard gain to the 5 with just over a minute to go, setting up the winning score.
Chargers quarterback Drew Brees (17-for-23, 179 yards) threw for two touchdowns. His 40-yard completion to Marques Colston on a flea flicker set up a 4-yard TD pass to Terrance Copper.
In other games:
* CARDINALS 27, BROWNS 21: At Glendale, Ariz., the Cardinals turned three of Cleveland's four turnovers into touchdowns, Edgerrin James (114 yards, 24 carries) topped 100 yards rushing for only the second time this season and Arizona (6-6) held on to beat the Browns (7-5). Kurt Warner (18-for-30, 169 yards) threw two touchdown passes for the Cards.
* STEELERS 24, BENGALS 10: At Pittsburgh, Hines Ward caught two touchdown passes to break Pittsburgh's career record for touchdown receptions and help give the Steelers (9-3) the victory over Cincinnati (4-8). Ward's 64 career TD receptions are one more than Hall of Famer John Stallworth.
* RAIDERS 34, BRONCOS 20: At Oakland, Josh McCown (14-for-21, 141 yards) threw three touchdown passes despite missing two series when top overall draft pick JaMarcus Russell played for the first time and the Raiders (4-8) topped Denver (5-7). Oakland (4-8) scored 24 points off four turnovers.
* COLTS 28, JAGUARS 25: At Indianapolis, the Colts are on the verge of their fifth straight AFC South title after Peyton Manning (20-for-29, 288 yards) threw four touchdown passes, two after the Colts (10-2) won replay challenges. David Garrard (24-for-29, 257 yards) threw a pair of touchdown passes and an interception for Jacksonville (8-4).
* CHARGERS 24, CHIEFS 10: At Kansas City, LaDainian Tomlinson (177 yards, 23 carries) rushed for two touchdowns and the defense recorded eight sacks as San Diego (7-5) beat the Chiefs (4-8). Tomlinson had only 60 yards on 13 carries in the first half, but came on after intermission with scoring runs of 31 and 28 yards.
* VIKINGS 42, LIONS 10: At Minneapolis, rookie Adrian Peterson (116 yards, 15 carries) ran for two touchdowns in his return from a knee injury and quarterback Tarvaris Jackson (18-for-24, 204 yards) threw for two touchdowns as Minnesota (6-6) beat slumping Detroit (6-6).
* TITANS 28, TEXANS 20: At Nashville, Vince Young (21-for-31, 248 yards) threw for two touchdowns in rallying Tennessee (7-5) past Houston (5-7). The Titans, who halted a three-game losing skid, had defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth back after an injured hamstring kept him out of the three defeats.
* RAMS 28, FALCONS 16: At St. Louis, Gus Frerotte (23-for-35, 311 yards) threw three touchdown passes in the first half and then sweated out two second-half interceptions, but the Rams (3-9) held on to defeat Atlanta (3-9).
* PANTHERS 31, 49ERS 14: At Charlotte, Vinny Testaverde (17-for-26, 153 yards) threw two touchdown passes and Carolina (5-7) snapped a five-game losing streak with its first home win in more than a year. San Francisco (3-9) committed six turnovers. *