NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees snapped out of his recent rut, New Orleans’ defense transformed into a turnover-producing machine, and the Saints proved how good they could be this season, even if it’s probably too late to matter.
Brees passed for 307 yards and four touchdowns, and the Saints recorded their first shutout in 17 years in a 41-0 rout of Tampa Bay on Sunday, extending the Buccaneers’ losing streak to four games and ending their playoff hopes.
“Even though maybe that Super Bowl trophy can’t be ours this year, we still have a lot to play for,” Brees said. “We have a very prideful group of guys, but also we have a group of guys that understand the big picture, and that is that we’re going to be together for a long time and we can start building the foundation of something now that will carry over for years to come.”
Brees avoided an interception for the first time in three games and connected on his scoring passes with tight end David Thomas, running back Darren Sproles and receivers Lance Moore and Joe Morgan. Mark Ingram added an 11-yard touchdown run.
Josh Freeman endured one of his worst outings of the season for Tampa Bay (6-8), throwing four interceptions and losing a fumble. Jabari Greer made two interceptions, Rafael Bush and Isa Abdul-Quddus the others. Cameron Jordan forced Freeman’s fumble on a sack and recovered it.
“It’s my job to make sure everybody is educated as to what the play is. I’ve got to do a better job,” Freeman said. “Some of those turnovers were really odd. Chalk it up to miscommunication.”
New Orleans (6-8) also bottled up standout rookie running back Doug Martin, holding him to 16 yards on nine carries as the Buccaneers lost for the fourth straight time and suffered by far their most lopsided drubbing this season.
“We got our butts whipped, and that’s it,” Bucs guard Donald Penn said . “You can’t sugarcoat it. We didn’t perform today, and it’s really tough and frustrating because we have so much talent.”
The Saints will still be alive for a playoff berth when they kick off at Dallas next Sunday, but will have to finish in a multi-team tie at 8-8, which would require several other teams to lose their last two games. While the Bucs could finish 8-8, their conference record would be 5-7, dooming them to lose all possible tiebreakers.
“I didn’t get this team ready to go today for whatever that reason is,” Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. “They fought their guts out. It’s just that I didn’t do a good job of getting ready and we didn’t play well.”
Although many fans emptied out of the Superdome by the fourth quarter, those remaining howled as the Saints stopped Tampa Bay at the New Orleans 10, preserving the club’s first shutout since a 12-0 win in the 1995 season finale against the Jets in New York.
The shutout meant a lot to a unit that came in ranked last in the league, in large part because of high yardage totals allowed early in the season while adjusting to the scheme of new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
“We’ve come a long way. Our defense the first four or five games was on pace to be one of the worst defenses ever,” Saints linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. “It’s just good to finally get a game to where we can be like, ‘All right, defense. This is us. This is what we’re really all about.’”
Brees had been intercepted nine times during New Orleans’ recent three-game skid. That he would rebound well against Tampa Bay made sense; the Bucs came in giving up a league-worst 311.6 yards per game. Brees eclipsed 200 yards by halftime but eased off after his 34-yard touchdown to Morgan in the second half.
Ingram finished with 90 yards rushing and the Saints had their third-best total on the ground this season with 149 yards against a Tampa Bay rushing defense that came in first in the league, allowing 78.2 yards per game.
“We all, earlier in the week, I know offensively just kind of decided that, you know what? We haven’t really put one together that we really want to hang our hat on,” Brees said. “We just wanted to put our best out there.”
Brees finished with more than 300 yards passing and four TDs for the 17th time in his career, more than any quarterback in NFL history. Dan Marino had done so 16 times.
Trailing 10-0, the Bucs’ squandered a chance to close the gap when Freeman missed badly on two straight passes, the first to an open Mike Williams in the end zone. The next was his second interception of the first half. Bush grabbed the errant pass at the 9 and returned it 40 yards, and that led to Brees’ second TD toss, a 2-yarder to Sproles.
Brees put one more scoring drive together in the half after Sproles returned a punt 37 yards to the Tampa Bay 38 with 1:04 left. Moore’s 8-yard TD grab made it 24-0 at halftime.
NOTES: The Saints had a halftime presentation for former left tackle Willie Roaf, who last summer became only the second Saints player inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Roaf was given the customary Hall of Fame ring as he stood behind his bronze bust, which will be returned to Canton. The only other Saints Hall of Famer is linebacker Rickey Jackson, inducted in 2010. … Saints LT William Robinson made his first-career start with Zach Strief sidelined by a right ankle injury. … The Saints last home shutout was Dec. 16, 1991, against the Los Angeles Raiders, 27-0.