NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- 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 to a 27-23 triumph over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
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 a head 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.
Call it a microcosm of a frustrating season for New Orleans (5-7), 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, who was hobbled by a bruised lower back, worked against New Orleans.
Making his first start for Tampa Bay and fifth of his career, McCown completed his first 15 passes and wound up 29-of-37 for 313 yards and two touchdowns.
"We tried to not play defensive with a young quarterback playing in his first game in a long time. Luke McCown responded," Gruden said. "For us to win this game, we knew we would have to score some points. The only way we were going to do it was by throwing it."
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 timeout, 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.
"I feel good about our fourth-down play selection and I just changed my mind. I had confidence in running the power off our right side," Gruden said. "You've got a chance to push it into overtime or you've got a chance to take advantage of the opportunity while you are there, and that's what we did."
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.
"I've never been in a game like that in my life," said McCown, a former Louisiana Tech quarterback who has appeared in only seven NFL games. "All I know is that we never quit. All the time, coach told me it wasn't over, and you saw out there today why you have to have faith."
Outplayed most of the game, the Saints made big plays to pull ahead on the scoreboard in the second half. Mike McKenzie returned an interception 53 yards for a score. Quarterback Drew Brees had a 45-yard touchdown pass to Henderson, who outran double coverage and made a diving catch in the back of the end zone.
Even beyond his involvement in the failed reverse, Reggie Bush did not make much of a contribution. He rushed for 64 yards on 13 carries and appeared to be in pain after a heavy hit to his ribs in the second half.
After the game, he sat in front of his locker, still in uniform, for 40 minutes with his hands on his head. He declined to speak with reporters.
Tampa Bay's Graham had the best day among the running backs with 106 yards on 22 carries.
Joey Galloway continued to torment New Orleans' secondary as he did early this season. His receptions of 41 and 60 yards set up first-half scores. He finished with seven catches for 159 yards.
Tampa Bay had 466 total yards, far better than New Orleans' 246, but could not open a big lead because two early drives ended with Matt Bryant's field goals of 27 and 31 yards, and another drive ended with a missed field goal. ... McKenzie missed several plays on Tampa Bay's last drive while being looked at by trainers. Payton said after the game that McKenzie was fine and did not offer any details about what was bothering the defensive back.
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