TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints looked quite comfortable in the role of late-season spoiler.
Brees threw a pair of touchdown passes to Marques Colston to help New Orleans snap a four-game losing streak with a 24-17 victory Sunday that damaged the playoff hopes for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The 36-year-old Brees took over sole possession of third place on the career list for December TD passes, moving ahead of Dan Marino (110) with 112. Only Peyton Manning (134) and Brett Favre (116) have thrown more during the month.
Brees, who also tied Manning for most career 300-yard games with his 93rd, recalled traveling to Miami for a preseason game as a rookie and seeing some of Marino’s statistics and records on display.
“I remember looking up there and just thinking, ‘Those are astronomical. Those are impossible. How would somebody ever reach those numbers?'” Brees said. “That part of it makes me look back and just realize just how lucky I am, how grateful I am to have had this opportunity.”
Brees completed 31 of 41 passes for 312 yards without an interception. Colston scored on receptions of 1 and 3 yards in the first half, and Tim Hightower had a 3-yard TD run in the third quarter for the Saints (5-8), who won for the eighth time in nine meetings between the NFC South rivals.
“Like I said earlier in the week, as long as they’ve got No. 9, you got to be ready for them,” Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said.
The Buccaneers (6-7) lost for the second time in three weeks, damaging their hopes of recovering from a slow start to a run for an NFC wild card.
“Normally you play your best ball when this much is on the line, but it’s amazing we lost by (only) seven points,” coach Lovie Smith said. “The things we did, you just can’t win a football game.”
The Saints converted 12 of their 17 third downs, the Bucs were penalized eight times for 80 yards, and Jameis Winston’s bid to rally his team in the second half was hindered by a missed field goal.
The No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft threw a fourth-quarter TD pass to Adam Humphries to trim a 14-point deficit to 24-17. The Bucs got the ball back with just over five minutes remaining, punted four plays later, and then watched New Orleans grind out three first downs to end the game.
“We didn’t put a good product on the field today,” Smith said. “Every area we didn’t play well. It’s as simple as that.”
Hightower rushed for 85 yards on 28 carries for the Saints, who bounced back from last week’s 41-38 home loss to unbeaten Carolina. Willie Snead had seven receptions for 122 yards, and Benjamin Watson had seven catches for 70 yards.
Brees and Colston have teamed for 71 touchdowns over 10 seasons, fifth most by a quarterback-receiver combination in NFL history behind Manning-Marvin Harrison, Steve Young-Jerry Rice, Marino-Mark Clayton and Philip Rivers-Antonio Gates. The two TDs on Sunday staked the Saints to a 14-0 lead, and Colston finished with six receptions for 36 yards.
“He’s one of the most unselfish players I’ve ever played with. One of the greatest teammates I’ve ever had. One of the most dependable, most reliable people I’ve ever played with, and I consider myself lucky to have had so far these 10 years with him,” Brees said. “It never ceases to amaze me just some of the big plays he has the ability to make.”
The Bucs managed just one first down against the NFL’s’ 32th-ranked defense until a pair of personal fouls on cornerback Kyle Wilson for hits on receivers following incomplete passes helped spark Tampa Bay early in the second quarter. A defensive holding call against cornerback Brandon Browner on third down hurt, too, extending an 80-yard drive that Doug Martin capped with a 14-yard TD run.
Winston completed 18 of 32 passes for 182 yards, including the 11-yard TD to Humphries midway through the fourth. Martin, the NFL’s second-leading rusher, finished with 81 yards on 11 attempts.
NOTES: The loss stopped the Bucs from climbing over .500 for the first time in three years. … The Saints, who lost to Tampa Bay at home in Week 2, have beaten the Bucs four straight times on the road. … Bucs WR Vincent Jackson left in the second quarter with a knee injury and did not return. … The Bucs played without rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander, who began serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancing substances.
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