Word spread long ago that Saints quarterback Drew Brees is magical at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
In his first seven games there this year, all wins, Brees completed 71.9 percent of his passes and threw for 350.6 yards on average. He threw 23 touchdowns and only three interceptions at home, and he had a passer rating of 120.1.
In what ultimately became the team’s final game at the Superdome this year, Brees and the Saints found themselves in a situation where they’d need to win against Tampa Bay on Sunday to clinch a playoff berth without depending on the outcomes of games elsewhere. And, as he’s made a habit of when stakes are high, Brees performed even better than he’s used to at home.
Brees passed for 381 yards, four first-half touchdowns and no interceptions, and he posted a passer rating of 157.4 to lead New Orleans to a 42-17 win over Tampa Bay. He accounted for a fifth score by running one in from 9 yards early in the fourth quarter.
The Saints (11-5) secured the No. 6 seed in the NFC South playoffs, and they learned Sunday night that they’ll travel to Philadelphia for the wild-card round. That game is set for 7 p.m. Saturday on NBC.
Brees said the onslaught he spearheaded served as one last reminder to him and his teammates about what they’re “capable of” on offense before gearing up to hit the road, where the Saints are 3-5 this year and 0-5 all-time in the playoffs.
“I feel like we’re as complete an offense as anyone out there and as we’ve ever been,” Brees said. “You combine all those things, and that makes you feel very confident about your ability to go and win whatever way you need to win.”
Wide receiver Robert Meachem, who caught one of Brees’ scores, added, “That’s just Drew being Drew. Under the spotlight and on a big stage, he knows how to make plays; and when everything is clicking, we’re a dangerous team. That’s what we prepared all week to do: Be dangerous.”
It became obvious quickly that those preparations would bear lots of fruit for the Saints.
Brees completed 17 of the 21 passes he threw in the first half for 321 yards. He threw TD passes of 44 yards to Lance Moore, of 10 yards to Jimmy Graham, of 41 yards to Meachem and of 76 yards to Kenny Stills to buoy the Saints to a 28-14 lead.
Each score was remarkable for its own reasons. For Moore’s, it was his longest catch of the season. For Graham’s, it was his 16th of the year, one shy of the NFL record for TDs by a tight end set by New England’s Rob Gronkowski in 2011.
On Meachem’s, Brees beat Tampa Bay cornerback Darrelle Revis, who went into the game allowing just 0.53 yards each play he’s lined up in coverage — the fewest in the NFL among defenders who have been in on at least 300 snaps, according to the website Pro Football Focus.
The play also brought Brees past the threshold of 5,000 passing yards in a campaign for the third straight year and the fourth time overall despite being sacked a career-high 37 times this year (once Sunday). He owns half of the eight such seasons that exist throughout NFL history.
Stills’ was the Saints’ longest play from scrimmage this season; it was the longest catch of the rookie’s young career by 7 yards; and it was the second time Brees smoked Revis in one quarter.
“We haven’t had a game with this many big plays in a while, which is nice when that occurs,” said Brees, who also had a 33-yard completion to Graham. Wrapping up his regular season with 39 TDs, 12 interceptions and 5,162 yards, he continued, “Obviously, (we’re) going into the playoffs on a high note.”
Revis attributed Tampa Bay’s lapses in coverage to “bad communication” among the members of the secondary.
“I mean Drew Brees — he’s a Hall of Fame quarterback ... you just can’t do that,” he said. “He will pick you apart when you make mistakes like that.”
The only TD that Brees wasn’t responsible for happened when he handed the ball off to Pierre Thomas, and the Saints running back punched it in from 8 yards to give the Saints a 35-17 lead late in the third quarter.
The scores by Moore, Graham, Meachem, Stills and Thomas capped drives of 80, 80, 57, 80 and 92 yards, clinical advances that let the Saints outgain the Bucs 468-290. New Orleans rushed 30 times for 98 yards; 70 of those yards came on 17 second-half carries.
Brees’ TD ended a 25-yard drive set up by an interception that Bucs quarterback Mike Glennon threw to Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis, who picked off a career-high four passes this year.
For Tampa Bay, Glennon threw for 219 yards and two first-half touchdowns on 22-of-41 passing, and he was sacked twice. His 48-yard TD throw to wide receiver Tiquan Underwood on a flea flicker capped a 62-yard drive, and a 1-yard score to tight end Tim Wright closed an 80-yard drive.
Otherwise, the Saints defense forced five punts and held Tampa Bay to a third-quarter field goal. In addition to Lewis’ pick, Tampa Bay twice lost the ball to New Orleans on downs.
“You always want to play your best football this time of year,” coach Sean Payton said. “We were good enough today to get the win, and now it is just putting together a good week of practice.”