One more time, Drew Brees and the Saints proved how tough they are to hang with in the Big Easy.
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If they want to go anywhere in the playoffs, though, they’ll have to do so on the road.
Brees passed for four touchdowns and ran for another score, and New Orleans clinched a wild-card spot with a 42-17 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday.
Three of Brees’ scoring strikes were longer than 40 yards — 76 to Kenny Stills, 44 to Lance Moore and 41 to Robert Meachem. Brees passed for 381 yards, eclipsing 5,000 yards in a season for an unprecedented fourth time. He finished the season with 5,162 yards to go with 39 touchdowns.
Brees’ other TD was a 10-yard pass to tight end Jimmy Graham, and the Saints (11-5) finished 8-0 in the Superdome.
Mike Glennon passed for 219 yards and two TDs for Tampa Bay (4-12). With doubts swirling about the future of second-year Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano, the Bucs closed the season with losses in their last three games, and four of their last five.
The Saints were 3-5 outside the Superdome this season, and had lost three of their previous four games to set up a season finale they needed to win to assure themselves of a playoff spot. With Sunday’s victory, they got back to the postseason for the fourth time in five seasons, the lone exception being scandal-plagued 2012, when coach Sean Payton was suspended the entire season in connection with the NFL’s bounty probe.
They’ll open the playoffs next weekend at Sunday night’s winner between Philadelphia and Dallas.
Schiano, meanwhile, coached like he had nothing to lose, trying a fake field goal and going for it several times on fourth down, converting one of three.
In the end, his team was overmatched, outgained 468 yards to 290.
Glennon was intercepted by Keenan Lewis, setting up Brees’ 9-yard touchdown run.
Pierre Thomas also scored on an 8-yard run.
Brees was 17 of 21 for 321 yards in the first half, when he threw all four of his scoring passes and took a perfect 158.3 passer rating into the locker room. His final line was 24 of 31 for 381 yards, no interceptions and a rating of 157.4.
The Saints opened with an 80-yard scoring drive, but not before being faced with their first significant decision. Facing fourth-and-1 on the Bucs 46, Payton kept the offense on the field and fullback Jed Collins converted. On the next play, Brees found Moore deep down the middle to make it 7-0.
It marked the first time in 11 games the Saints had scored on their opening possession, but that lead didn’t last long.
Tampa Bay responded on its first series with a flea-flicker that went for a 48-yard touchdown to Tiquan Underwood, who was wide open after safety Malcom Jenkins was drawn in by the handoff to Bobby Rainey.
New Orleans took the lead right back with another 80-yard drive, that one highlighted by Graham’s 33-yard reception, Darren Sproles’ 24-yard gain on a screen pass and Graham’s 10-yard TD catch, the Pro Bowl tight end’s team-leading 16th score of the season.
Brees went over the 5,000-yard mark for the fourth time in his career in style, hitting Robert Meachem deep down the sideline for a 41-yard score that made it 21-7 in the second quarter.
Glennon’s 1-yard pass to Ti Wright in the corner of the end zone cut it to 21-14, but Graham’s score, his team-leading 16th of the season, made it 28-14, and the Bucs did not threaten again.