The Saints opened the game hot, stopping their opponent's first drive cold and then scoring on three straight drives in the first 24:21 to take a 17-0 lead.
After that, it was a pretty bad performance by the Saints, all around.
Brees' statistically magnificent day was spoiled by a statistically lousy rookie in Bucs QB Josh Freeman.
Brees completed a whopping 32 of 37 passes, including a team-record 19 straight. Only five incompletions on the day and a sack grayed his effort, which included a gorgeous 30-yard strike to a wide-open Robert Meachem int he second quarter.
Freeman was 21 of 31 for 271 yards, three sacks and a pair of costly interceptions. Yet Freeman's second half performance including overtime was 9 of 13 for 136 yards, no sacks, and a key eight yard scramble to keep the game-winning drive alive. His second half interception was huge though, an underthrown ball to the end zone was masterfully picked by a sky-high Tracy Porter, snuffing out a Bucs scoring bid.
The Saints started well on offense, pounding the ball with all four runningbacks: Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell, Reggie Bush and even Lynell Hamilton. The Saints racked up 96 first half rushing yards including 60 and a game-opening touchdown by Thomas. In the second half, the Saints found just 28 more yards on the ground as Thomas was unavailable.
Trying to gain traction as the Bucs consistently threatened the Saints' 17-point output, the Saints passed the ball 23 times to only 10 rushes in the second half, despite averaging 7.4 yards per carry from their runningbacks. This is in part thanks to a rib injury to Thomas, which he suffered on a fun to watch tackle-busting, defender-dragging 26-yard dash in the second quarter. Fourth stringer Lynell Hamilton got six of the ten carries for the Saints in the second half, as Sean Payton prematurely decided to rest starters.
For the Brees-led offense, touchdown, touchdown, field goal was followed by punt, punt, punt, fumble, punt, missed field goal. Meanwhile, the Bucs crossed midfield on all nine of their drives, opting to punt three times in the first half from inside New Orleans territory. And in the second half, all three Bucs possessions ended in the red zone, and the last in overtime was close enough for Connor Barth's 46-yard game winner.
To say the Saints defense didn't show up today is glossing over facts: the Saints picked off of an inaccurate rookie quarterback twice, and sacked him three times. But Freeman repeatedly hurt the Saints as the Bucs isolated TE Kellen Winslow, Jr. on various defensive backs. The Bucs had a perfect game plan and its most telling in this: two rookies lead the Saints in tackles today, each with 10 total tackles: CB Malcolm Jenkins and undrafted LB Jonathan Casillas, starting in place of injury WLB Scott Shanle. There is no doubt that Tampa Bay was picking on the Saints' rookies, but they also abused Darren Sharper with Winslow and WR Antonio Bryant.
Casillas had a tough time today, rushing the passer a lot but only coming up with half a sack and a lot of empty hands. He flat-out blew it more than once with bad angles at Freeman in the pocket, and he wasn't alone.
Even in the first quarter there were signs of what was to come. Witness Cadillac Williams carrying Sedrick Ellis eleven yards downfield on his way to 129 yards rushing on the day. Watch RB Earnest Graham ricocheting off a tackle attempt by Roman Harper, or Maurice Stovall slipping a poor tackling effort by Mike McKenzie to break down the right sideline for a 29-yard gain.
Freeman's overtime scramble on a third and 5 was a back-breaker. With receivers blanketed and the pocket collapsed, the 6'6, 250 pound rookie from Kansas State escaped a stunting Charles Grant among others and sprinted into the open for an eight yard gain and a first down.
The effort on defense clearly wasn't there, even if a rookie QB's performance generated a pair of turnovers and three sacks.
On offense, Brees' fine day was buried by some mistakes that don't show up on the stat book. Marques Colston hauled in eight pass for 77 yards but a huge fumble on his seventh catch, a 16 yard tackle-breaking gain over the middle, snuffed out the Saints' third-to-last drive.
That drive was supposed to have been the Saints' decisive response to Freeman's impressive 98-yard touchdown drive that looked very easy. Freeman hit on passes of 10, 15, 35, and 18 before Williams bounced outside and rushed in for the score from 23 yards out as the Bucs covered the distance in only 8 plays.
Following Colston's fumble, the Bucs went down the field and found themselves with second and one at the Saints' 19 yard line, down by only 7 points with just over six minutes remaining. This would be one of the few victories for the Saints defense on the day, and it should have helped win the game. Freeman fired incomplete to the end zone on second down, then Williams was stuffed for no gain on third. With 5:01 left on fourth and one, Williams was dropped for a loss by Jonathan Vilma on a play that never happened - a last-second timeout by Bucs head coach Raheem Morris. On the do-over, Freeman bootlegged right and tried to throw a pass by pursuing Charles Grant, who swatted the attempt to the turf.
The Bucs turned it over on downs with five minutes left to play, and the Saints had a golden opportunity here to one of their patented game-smothering drives. Brees hit Devery Henderson short for a first down out to the Saint 31, but this was just another short pass that didn't threaten the secondary. Brees rarely looked downfield in the second half, hitting checkdown after checkdown as the Bucs clamped down on defense. On this series Hamilton was stopped for no gain and Brees scrambled to hit David Thomas for an immediately-tackled three-yard gain. Then on third down, Meachem rounded off a hitch route just inches short of the marker.
The Saints lined up to punt, but the Bucs jumped offsides because of a Saints' false start. Had that call gone the other way, it could be argued that LS Jason Kyle was getting set, not flinching when the Bucs jumped across, this game might very well have been the Saints' 14th win of the season. But the Tampa Bay defender did not make contact, and the Saints were moved back five yards. On the punt, former Ole Miss Rebel and UFL Tusker WR Michael Spurlock cut and darted through the Saints' coverage teams, no doubt angered by the false start call. A referee on the field threw a block on Morstead, who was unlikely to have caught up in pursuit anyway. The 77-yard punt return touchdown tied the game with 2:41 left.
That's right, after two and a half quarters of the offense goofing around, most of 58 minutes of the defense allowing the Bucs to move at will, it was time for the Saints' special teams to stink it up. The Saints had a habit so far this season of shutting down opponents in the fourth quarter, so it is no surprise that the 14 they gave up on Sunday was as season high.
The Saints got the ball back and Brees went to work, hitting 7 of 9 passes, none down the field, to move the Saints to the Tampa 19 yard line. The last pass was to Meachem, who caught the ball three yards downfield and slipped and fought through tackles before stumbling down after a shoestring tackle by Aqib Talib. Had Meachem broken free, as he has done so many times this season, it would have been a walk-in game winner. But on that play like many others, the Saints just came up short.
Garrett Hartley's 37-yard field goal with nine seconds left was an ugly side-spinning knuckleball wide left, his first miss under 50 yards in two seasons. After the game Hartley admitted that the missed kick was his fault. Tampa Bay won the toss, moved right down the field and kicked the game winner from 47 yards out, not allowing Brees an overtime sniff. Ball game.
The Saints squandered a seventeen point lead, something that a Sean Payton team has never done. The Saints are the first ever 13-win team in team history, but now also the first ever 13-win team in league history to lose to a 2-win team.
Aside from Pierre Thomas' ribs, no other injuries were readily apparent or reported after the game.
Darren Sharper's first half interception and 21-yard return broke the single-season record for interception return yardage. It was his ninth interception, bringing him to 376 yards on returns.
Post game tweet: Lance Moore wrote: "Very few things are ever achieved without some sort of adversity along the way. Let's leave it at that. Who Dats we got u!"
The Saints remain as the #1 seed in NFC playoff standings at 13-2. The 11-3 Vikings play Monday night against Chicago, and a Minnesota loss would seal the #1 seed for the Saints. The Saints can still claim home field advantage with a win next week in Carolina against the suddenly red-hot Panthers.