TAMPA, Fla. — Drew Brees’ day didn’t have a good start, with a pass deflected on the Saints’ opening possession and returned 30 yards by the Buccaneers’ Ronde Barber, setting up a touchdown on the next play.
And while the Bucs led 14-0, and later 21-7, Brees found his rhythm and led the Saints to touchdowns on four consecutive first-half drives, part of a gaudy first 30 minutes that saw him pass for 313 yards and four touchdowns in the Saints’ 35-28 win Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
“We stayed very calm, together. We were methodical,” said Brees, who finished with 377 yards passing. “To put together the drives we did, four in a row ... that was big. We were feeling good coming into halftime, but we knew they were saving their best punch until the end.”
Sure enough, Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman passed for 298 yards in the second half, finishing with a career-high 420 yards and rallying the Bucs back to within 9 yards of a tying touchdown on the game’s final play. Mike Williams caught the ball in the end zone, but had been pushed out of bounds and was thus ineligible to catch the winning score.
“We knew Josh could throw the ball deep,” Saints coach Aaron Kromer said. “When we covered deep, he did a good job of checking it down. Josh had a good game today, and he’s a good player. They have good wide receivers. It’s going to be a battle back in New Orleans later in the year.”
Brees was the first NFL quarterback in more than three years to throw for 300 yards and four touchdowns in a first half. The Patriots’ Tom Brady did so in October 2009.
The Saints got their spark late in the first quarter, when Brees hit Devery Henderson for a 40-yard pass to set up a 17-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston. After the Bucs extended their lead to 21-7, Brees answered, converting a third-and-11 with a 13-yard pass to Lance Moore, finishing the drive with a 9-yard score to Darren Sproles.
He wasn’t done, throwing a 48-yard circus-catch touchdown to Joe Morgan, who flipped a Bucs defender over his head and then dived into the end zone. New Orleans got the ball back on its 28 with 1:53 left, and Brees converted two more third downs with passes to Moore. The Saints took a lead into halftime after Brees connected with tight end David Thomas for a 20-yard score with 21 seconds left.
Thomas, who had just two catches for 11 yards this season entering the game, stepped up for the injured Jimmy Graham, who did not travel because of an ankle injury.
“Dave’s one of those unsung heroes,” Brees said. “Just one of those blue-collar, hard-hat guys that comes in and does whatever you ask them to do. In Jimmy’s absence, his role was expanded greatly. I’ve got a ton of confidence in David Thomas. He’s a guy I have no problem coming to in a critical situation.”
Graham’s absence was somewhat offset by the healthy return of Moore, who missed the Chargers game with a hamstring injury. Moore finished with nine catches for 121 yards, the latter his best total in more than two years. Six of those grabs came on third down, and all six resulted in first downs.
“We’ve seen Drew, as the receivers got healthy in the last four games, really up his game,” Kromer said. “Drew plays best when his players around him are playing well, and that’s what happened today.”
The two quarterbacks combined for 797 yards and seven touchdown passes. In six previous meetings, they’d never combined for more than 686 or four scores. That happened despite the best effort of a Bucs team that is now even with the Saints at 2-4.
“When you have a guy like Drew Brees, you have to mix it up,” Bucs coach Greg Schiano. “One thing you can’t do is just give him a look, because they will pick you apart.
“He may pick you apart anyway, but he will definitely do it if you have one look coming at him.”
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