Fast start pays off for Saints

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTONSaints receiver Lance Moore scores a touchdown against Buccaneers defensive back Leonard Johnson during Sunday's game. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTONSaints receiver Lance Moore scores a touchdown against Buccaneers defensive back Leonard Johnson during Sunday's game.

A fast start Sunday against Tampa Bay resulted in a strong finish to the regular season for the playoff-bound New Orleans Saints.

Scoring early and often on coach Sean Payton’s 50th birthday, the Saints put an exclamation point on the home portion of their 2013 schedule with a lopsided 42-17 victory before a sellout crowd of 73,150 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

It marked the 16th consecutive victory at home for the Saints with Payton on the sideline, counting 8-0 in 2011 and excluding the 2012 campaign when he served a season-long suspension for his role in Bountygate.

The Saints grabbed a 7-0 lead on a 44-yard scoring pass from quarterback Drew Brees to wide receiver Lance Moore with 10:15 remaining in the first quarter and never looked back, securing their fifth playoff berth under Payton in eight seasons.

“We knew what was at stake; it was either start fast or go home,’’ Saints right guard Jahri Evans said. “When we start like that, when we take care of our business on offense, our defense even plays more aggressive.

“Our goal every game when we step on the field is to score points, and we were clicking on all cylinders today. Now it’s back to business tomorrow. It’s a new season.’’

The Brees-to-Moore touchdown pass ended a drought of nine consecutive games when the Saints failed to score on their initial possession of either half.

“Starting fast was something we talked about all week,’’ Payton said. “Getting the lead and forcing them to become one dimensional certainly helps.’’

“We were able to get in a rhythm early today,’’ said Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who caught five passes for 71 yards and one touchdown to extend his franchise record to 16. “We scored on our first drive and we haven’t been able to do that lately. That’s very important for us.’’

The Saints also scored on their initial possession of the second half against Tampa Bay — an 8-yard run by Pierre Thomas with 1:22 remaining in the third quarter to extend their lead to 35-17.

“We wanted to get back to playing Saints football,’’ Thomas said. “It was very important that we started fast today. It put us in a good spot mentally. Every time we put up points early it gives us confidence. Everybody came together today because we know what’s at stake.’’

Knowing a loss to the Buccaneers (4-12) might keep the Saints (11-5) out of the playoffs, players said they approached Sunday’s game as if it were a playoff game, with a one-and-done mentality.

“We had to send a clear message to (Tampa Bay) and the stadium that we were in control of our destiny today,’’ Saints fullback Jed Collins said. “There was a lot of emotion coming into the game, and I think we did that from the get go.’’

The Saints completed their eight-game home schedule by averaging 34.6 points, in sharp contrast to their 15.6 ppg average on the road.

Saints running back Mark Ingram said the key now is to bring their show on the road.

“Hopefully, we’ll change the color of the Gatorade we’re drinking, change the sweatsuits that we’ve been wearing on the road,’’’ Ingram said with a smile. “Hopefully that will work for us.’’

When pressed further on what changes might have to be made going on the road, Ingram replied: “We got to change something. We got to change the pre-game meal on the plane. Every position eats something different. Hopefully, we’ll all pick a different food.’’