TAMPA, Fla. — The only thing that could stop New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham from having a career game on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a weather delay of more than an hour.
The Bucs defense certainly couldn’t contain the four-year veteran — especially during a productive first half.
Graham caught a 21-yard pass from quarterback Drew Brees on the Saints’ fourth offensive play of the game, just before a lightning and rain delay sent both teams to the locker room for 1 hour and 9 minutes.
And Graham remained red-hot when the game resumed.
He caught nine more passes and finished with 10 receptions for 179 yards — numbers that seemed even bigger when the Saints rallied late for a dramatic 16-14 win against the Bucs in Raymond James Stadium.
Graham established a Saints’ record for receiving yards by a tight end with 156 yards on eight catches in the first half alone. That total broke his own mark of 146 yards, which he set against the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 11, 2012.
“I didn’t know so much about the record,” Graham said after the game. “I just knew we were being productive. Really, just getting the win was the biggest record for me.”
Graham caught only two passes in the second half to give him 10 for the contest — which tied his career high. But his final grab of the game was perhaps the most important.
Trailing 14-13 with 1:06 to play in the game, the Saints got the ball back at their 37 after the Bucs kicker Rian Lindell was wide left with a 47-yard field-goal attempt that would have stretched their lead to four points.
On the first play after the miss, Brees found a wide-open Graham, whose 15-yard catch against free safety Dashon Goldson gave the Saints a first down at the Bucs’ 48.
That led to back-to-back catches by running back Darren Sproles and wide receiver Marques Colston, which set the Saints’ Garrett Hartley up for a game-winning 27-yard field goal on the final play.
It was apparent early on that the Saints were trying to isolate the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham on Bucs safeties. The plan worked, especially against the 200-pound Goldson — the Bucs’ top acquisition in free agency this winter.
“He’s a beast,” said Colston, who caught four passes for 63 yards, said of Graham. “What a mismatch.”
That’s what the Saints were thinking all week, Graham said.
“We were looking all week at matchups, and we thought we could exploit some things,” he said. “Me and Drew were on tonight.
“That guy, Drew Brees, he’s magical,” he added. “It doesn’t matter what point in the game it is. … A minute left, 30 seconds left. He believes.”
Like his final reception of the day, Graham had a 56-yard touchdown on a wide-open play late in the first quarter that gave the Saints a 10-7 lead.
Brees was under center when he changed the play, which had Bucs linebackers signaling they thought they knew what was coming.
But when the ball was snapped, linebacker Dekoda Watson turned Graham loose thinking he had safety help deep when he didn’t — which helped Graham make the easy catch and lope in for the score.
Graham almost had a second touchdown catch at the two-minute warning in the second quarter.
Brees tossed a deep ball over the middle to Graham, who tried to get away as Goldson desperately tried to rip the ball from his grasp.
Goldson finally was able to wrestle Graham to the ground, but the official on the spot ruled he crossed the goal line even though it appeared he was down in the field of play before rolling into the end zone.
After a review of the play by referee Bill Leavy, the touchdown was taken off the board and Graham was credited with a 29-yard gain although the Saints didn’t get any points on the drive.
With his first catch of the second half — an 8-yarder — Graham also set a record for the most yards by a tight end against the Bucs.
The old mark of 161 yards on 10 receptions was set by the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Pete Mitchell in 1995 — the first year of the Jaguars’ existence.
Graham’s 179 receiving yards accounted for just under half of the Saints’ total offensive output of 371 total yards as Brees completed 26 of 46 pass attempts for 322 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
“Drew was constantly looking for me,” Graham said. “Tonight was just my night. You never know when it’s going to happen for you. Tonight, it was me.”
“He’s a special talent … he makes big plays all the time,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He’s a great weapon to have on your side.”
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