The Buccaneers went into their rematch with the Saints at the Superdome on Saturday fully expecting to see a different Drew Brees than the one they saw in their first matchup three weeks ago.
They got exactly what they were expecting. The only problem was they couldn’t do anything about it.
Brees completed 23 of 34 passes for 299 yards and while he threw only one touchdown pass, he helped the Saints rattle off five straight scores in what proved to be a 31-24 New Orleans victory.
Coupled with the Falcons win over the Panthers earlier in the day, the Bucs loss means the Bucs can no longer win the NFC South and need a lot of help just to make the playoffs.
At 8-7 the Bucs are still in the hunt for the last NFC Wild Card berth but the Packers, who beat the Vikings on Saturday, have the edge on them there with a 9-6 record.
While Brees looked like the old Brees in this game, Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston too often looked like the old Winston, throwing two interceptions, including one from his own 3-yard line.
That came two plays into the second half and safety Jairus Byrd’s return to the 14 set the stage for Mark Ingram’s 14-yard touchdown run, which gave the Saints a 20-7 lead.
The Bucs tightened the deficit on several occasions but were never able to bounce all the way back on a day that started with the surprise scratch of running back Doug Martin from the lineup.
Martin, who said Friday he is no longer suffering in any way from the hamstring strain that sidelined him earlier in the year, was benched in favor of Jacquizz Rodgers.
“It was a football decision, a coach’s decision,’’ Bucs general manager Jason Licht said of sitting Martin, a two-time Pro Bowler who was re-signed to a new five-year, $35.75 million contract last spring.
“I’m fully supportive of coach’s decision on this,’’ Licht told the Buccaneers radio network. “We made the decision that we think gives us the best chance to win and I’ll leave it at that.’’
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Rodgers didn’t give the Bucs ground game the boost it was looking for, running 15 times for 63 yards and a touchdown, the Bucs gaining less than 100 yards on the ground.
The Bucs came out in this game trying to establish the run, moving it on the ground eight times in their first 15 plays, but wound up having to lean on Winston, who ran hot and cold.
Winston completed 23 of 35 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns but those two interceptions, both by Byrd, did the Bucs in as the second killed a Bucs drive that had reached the Saints 28-yard line in the fourth quarter.