QB Drew Brees threw for three touchdowns in the Saints' 31-point win
Would the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, their 1-8 record notwithstanding, be the ones to spoil the New Orleans Saints' perfect season? It seemed quite possible for about 25 minutes of game time Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
By the time the full 60 had expired, however, one of the most prolific offenses in league history had flexed its muscles and the Saints' march to perfection continued with a 38-7 victory over the Buccaneers. The Saints improved to 10-0 for the first time in franchise history and Tampa Bay absorbed its ninth loss of the year against just one win.
The game was even at 7-7 two-thirds of the way through the second quarter, but the Saints tacked on 10 points just before halftime and used two quick turnovers in the third quarter to pull away. Buccaneers rookie QB Josh Freeman was hurried into three interceptions and one fumble and the Saints turned those four takeaways into 17 points.
"We're obviously disappointed in everything we did today," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "It was a total team loss, from a coaches' standpoint, from a players' standpoint. We lost that thing together. We played a manageable first half, trying to keep Drew Brees off the field and limit his attempts. But we lost the rope at the end and you're not going to be able to keep Brees down forever.
"The silver lining is that we have a chance to go down there [to New Orleans] and show them the type of team we can really be [in Week 16]."
Making his third NFL start, Freeman hit his first bump in the road after a pair of impressive games, in part because the ever-growing deficit forced him to throw into the teeth of a Saints defense sitting on his throws. Freeman finished the game with 17 completions in 33 attempts for 126 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. He was still rather impressive on several occasions, most notably his scrambling TD pass to WR Michael Clayton in the first quarter and a 15-yard dash on third-and-12 on the same drive. However, he also threw one more interception than in his first two games combined and overthrew his targets on occasion.
"Today he was just off as a thrower," said Morris. "He was never able to get in a rhythm. He was off with his throws, especially in third downs early in the game. We had some manageable third downs there but we weren't able to convert them and stay in our game plan."
The Bucs running game produced 119 yards on 23 carries, averaging 5.2 yards per tote against a defense that had struggled against the run with DT Sedrick Ellis out of the lineup. Tampa Bay likely hoped to limit the amount of time the ball was in the hands of MVP candidate Drew Brees by pounding away on the ground, but the Saints surge before halftime forced them to throw for much of the second half.
In the end, Brees had plenty of opportunities to pad his gaudy season statistics, completing 19 of 29 passes for 187 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He wasn't sacked and finished with a quarterback rating of 118.0. The Saints turned to the ground game after building a big lead and finished with 183 yards on 36 carries. Pierre Thomas led the way with 92 yards on 11 carries and Mike Bell added 75 on 13 and a pair of touchdowns.
As strong as the Buccaneers had been in the fourth quarter in Freeman's two previous starts, they were eager to start faster on Sunday, particularly against a high-powered opponent. They were able to do just that, forcing a Saints punt on the first possession and taking their own opening drive 95 yards for a touchdown. Two Graham runs accounted for 29 yards as the Bucs ran for 57 yards on the drive. Freeman converted three third downs on the drive, the last one an impressive scramble-and-throw to Clayton in the back left corner of the end zone for an 18-yard score.
The Saints answered back immediately, driving 68 yards on seven plays for the tying touchdown. TE David Thomas got the drive started with a 37-yard catch-and-run, and Brees finished it with his own scrambling throw, a four-yard TD pass to WR Robert Meachem.
The Saints posted the only other scores of the first half during a whirlwind four minutes at the end of the second quarter. The first was a result of the only turnover of the first half, a diving interception by rookie CB Malcolm Jenkins. New Orleans got the ball at Tampa Bay's 29 after that takeaway but were forced to settle for three on John Carney's 39-yard shot. Unfortunately, the Saints also got the ball back one more time and needed just 1:17 to drive 63 yards for their second touchdown. Two Marques Colston grabs over the deep middle got the ball down to the Bucs' six and Brees looked to Meachem again for the score.
The Bucs did get the ball first to start the half but it didn't go well. After getting one first down, they lost the ball when Freeman was sacked and forced to fumble by blitzing LB Scott Fujita. The Saints recovered the ball at the Bucs' 15 and Brees found Thomas over the middle for an 11-yard score on third-and-six.
Now down by 17, the Bucs started again at their own 20 and got a pair of first downs on RB Earnest Graham's impressive second-effort run on third-and-one and Freeman's tackle-breaking scramble for 15 yards. Unfortunately, this drive too ended in a giveaway as a third-down pass over the middle to Clayton deflected off the receiver's outstretched hand and was intercepted by LB Jonathan Vilma.
Thomas got the ball into Buccaneers territory with an 18-yard run and Bell did him one better with a 28-yard dash up the middle, though he gave 15 of them back by taunting at the end of the play. Bell made it up for it with a 13-yard run to the Bucs' three, then another carry that took it in for a 31-7 Saints lead.
Clearly content to run the ball with their big lead, the Saints gave it to Thomas on their next possession for a 23-yard breakaway that moved the team into Bucs territory and ended the third quarter. Another 18-yard run for Thomas took it down to the six and Bell ran it in two plays later to tack on seven more points.
The Bucs did drive into New Orleans territory on the next possession, thanks in part to a 20-yard pass interference penalty. Obviously forced to go for it on fourth-and-two, the Bucs gave it over on downs on the Saints' 27 when Freeman's pass to Winslow sailed high.
The Bucs got the ball back one more time but that drive lasted just one play as a sagging Saints defense had no trouble reading a deep pass attempt to WR Antonio Bryant and it was picked off by S Chris Reis.
Game Notes: New Orleans now leads the all-time series with Tampa Bay, 21-14. The Bucs have still won seven of the last 12, but the Saints lead the series, 8-7, since it moved into the NFC South. … WR Antonio Bryant played in the 100th game of his NFL career on Sunday. He has played 23 of those 100 games as a Buccaneer. … G Davin Joseph made his 50th career NFL start, all for the Buccaneers. … TE Kellen Winslow caught a team-high five passes for 29 yards. That gave him 47 receptions on the season, which ranks as the second-most prolific season by a Bucs' tight end in team history. The only tight end with more catches in a season for Tampa Bay was Jackie Harris, who had 62 in 1995. … The Buccaneers wore their red jersey/white pants uniform combination for the first time since October 19, 2008. Wearing that combo for the first time in six years, Tampa Bay beat Seattle, 20-10. Overall, the Bucs are 9-4 when wearing red over white. … Rookie FB Chris Pressley not only played in his first NFL game on Sunday, but he started it. Pressley opened the game at fullback in place of veteran Earnest Graham. … The Buccaneers took their opening possession 95 yards for a touchdown to take a 7-0 lead. That marked the team's longest TD drive of the season in terms of both yards and time elapsed, as it chewed 6:55 off the clock. The team's previous longs were an 84-yard TD drive against Dallas on Sept. 13 and a TD drive of 6:03 against Dallas later in the same game.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive prior to Sunday's game: WR Yamon Figurs, CB Mike Mickens, CB Elbert Mack, G Shawn Murphy, T James Lee, WR Brian Clark, DT Dre Moore and designated third quarterback Byron Leftwich. Mack was out due to injury.
The Saints deactivated these eight men: K Garrett Hartley, WR Lance Moore, CB Tracy Porter, RB Reggie Bush, CB Chris McAlister, CB Jabari Greer, LB Jonathan Casillas and DT Sedrick Ellis. Moore, Porter, Bush, Greer and Ellis were out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, T Jeremy Trueblood sustained a knee injury in the third quarter and did not return.
The Saints did not report an injury from their sideline during the game.