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John DeShazier: Saints get a confidence-builder heading into postseason

Posted Dec 29, 2013

42-17 win over Tampa featured a plethora of big offensive plays

That which the New Orleans Saints could control, they did, and they punctuated the job with an exclamation point.

The Saints closed out the 2013 regular season with a 42-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, to claim the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC and finish the season perfect at home.

New Orleans will take to the road to play Philadelphia, the NFC East champions, in a wild-card game Saturday at 7:10 p.m. in a game to be broadcast by NBC.

“We did a lot of things well at a time that we needed to,” Coach Sean Payton said Sunday. “It was an important game for us, obviously, and I am proud of how they finished and got 11 wins. It is hard to get 11 wins in this league.”

The Saints, who finished the regular season 11-5 – 8-0 at home – after finishing 7-9 last season, never trailed in their win-and-get-in game. New Orleans broke a two-game losing streak by scoring 40-plus points for the second time at home, and more than 30 for the sixth time in the Superdome. The Saints finished their home schedule with an average winning score of 34-16.

“We wanted to go into the playoffs the right way, and we were able to do that,” said receiver Lance Moore (four catches for 73 yards, including a 44-yard touchdown).

There isn’t much doubt the Saints shouldn’t feel confident after handling the Buccaneers (4-12) with relative ease.

Offensively, the Saints had three touchdown drives of 80 yards in the first half, and a 92-yarder in the third quarter, en route to 468 total yards and seven plays of at least 24 yards.

Quarterback Drew Brees (24 for 31 for 381 yards and four touchdowns, and a rushing touchdown, with no interceptions) surpassed the 5,000-yard mark for the third consecutive season and the fourth season of his career, giving him half of the 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history. No one else has more than one.

“It was a great confidence builder,” Brees said. “We obviously moved the ball very effectively. We had some big plays. It’s been a while where we had a game with many big plays, which is nice. We were sharp in all regards.”

Defensively, New Orleans limited Tampa Bay to three conversions on 13 third-down attempts, 78 rushing yards and 290 total yards. And the Saints produced a turnover (Keenan Lewis’ interception) and two sacks (both by Junior Galette).

“We played a great, complementary game,” defensive end Cam Jordan said. “We started out slow defensively in the first half. They did some trick plays but we settled down and got back to doing what we do.”

Only against Dallas, in a 49-17 victory, did the Saints have a more lopsided win this season. And Sunday, they were convinced that they have the necessary tools to win on the road in the playoffs, after finishing 3-5 on the road in the regular season, including three straight losses away from the Superdome.

“We’ve got to play better,” right tackle Zach Strief said. “It’s not complicated." New Orleans Saints

Players also formulated theories as to how that would be accomplished.

“I’m recommending we change all the Gatorade flavors,” Strief said.

“We’re going to change the recipe in our Cheesy Mac (on the road), add a little more sauce,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “There was too much meat. We have to get a little more balance. More sauce.”

“We’re thinking that going on the road, maybe we’ll get some new sweatsuits,” Moore added. “The ones that we have haven’t been working out well for us.”

Those universal themes were as much as could be extracted from players Sunday. Odds are the responses will gain a more serious tone during the week, to match the businesslike approach with which the Saints dispatched the Buccaneers.

Tampa Bay won the coin toss, deferred and watched the Saints begin slicing apart its defense. On their opening drive, the Saints drove 80 yards in nine plays and scored on Brees’ 44-yard pass to Moore.

The 7-0 lead was short-lived. The Buccaneers opened their first drive at their 38 – aided by an excessive celebration penalty on the Saints’ touchdown, and a 26-yard kickoff return – and drove to the Saints’ 48-yard line in three plays.

From there, on first-and-10, the Bucs unveiled a flea flicker – quarterback Mike Glennon handed off to running back Bobby Rainey, who ran into the line before turning and flipping the ball back to Glennon. Glennon connected with Tiquan Underwood on a 48-yard touchdown that tied the score at 7-7 with 8:40 left in the first.

But the Saints took the lead for good on their next possession. Beginning at their 20-yard line, New Orleans again drove 80 yards in nine plays – matching the plays and yards from its first drive – to take a 14-7 lead on Brees’ 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham with 3:08 left in the first.

Tampa Bay sandwiched two punts around a Saints punt, and New Orleans then cashed in a five-play, 57-yard drive, ending on a 41-yard pass from Brees to receiver Robert Meachem.

The Bucs countered with their second and final touchdown drive – a nine-play, 80-yarder, ending on Glennon’s 1-yard pass to tight end Tim Wright with 3:28 left in the first half.

But Brees and the Saints deflated that momentum. A three-play, 80-yard touchdown drive did the trick, with Brees finding a wide-open Kenny Stills deep down the middle, and the rookie receiver adding a 76-yard touchdown reception to his resume that gave New Orleans a 28-14 lead that it carried into halftime.

A couple of touchdown runs in the third and fourth quarters – eight yards by Pierre Thomas and nine yards by Brees – ended the Saints’ scoring binge.

But they didn’t end the speculation over whether these Saints, after their recent road struggles, can go away from the Superdome and win a road playoff game for the first time in franchise history.

“Absolutely,” Brees said when asked if the Saints can win three consecutive playoff road games. “We are good enough to do whatever we set out to do. I think (Sunday) was a great step in the right direction to get ready for this playoff run.”

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