TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The New Orleans Saints are a long way from where they want to be.
For now, though, repeating as NFC South champions for the first time in franchise history feels pretty good.
“Goal No. 1 was to win the division again and we were able to do that,” Drew Brees said Sunday after throwing for one touchdown and running for another to help the Saints rally from an 11-point halftime deficit to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 28-14.
“I like the way we won this game. We didn’t play well in the first half and (faced) a big deficit,” Brees added. “We were able to come together with all sides making plays in that second half. I think that was the epitome of a great team win.”
Music blared in the winning locker room.
There’s still a lot of work ahead for the Saints (10-2), however clinching any division title — much less with three weeks remaining in the regular season — is an accomplishment worth celebrating.
“This is what guys look forward to. This is fun,” said Brees, who shrugged off a pair of turnovers to throw a 1-yard TD pass to Zach Line, then scored on a 1-yard sneak as the Saints avenged a season-opening loss to the Bucs (5-8) and also rebounded from a defeat the previous week at Dallas.
“This is the stuff you remember, especially road games — you know, road locker rooms, bus rides, back on the plane. Those moments together,” Brees added. “It’s hard to win in this league, it’s hard to win on the road. We’re going to enjoy these moments and continue to build on ’em.”
New Orleans’ defense did its part after allowing two first-half TDs, too, sacking Jameis Winston four times and limiting the NFL’s No. 1-ranked offense to 81 yards in the second half — most of that on the final drive of the game
“We got dominated in the second half,” said Bucs coach Dirk Koetter, whose team won a high-scoring shootout 48-40 at New Orleans in Week 1. “We haven’t been shut down like that in a long time.”
Brees completed 24 of 31 passes for 201 yards and one interception. Michael Thomas had 11 receptions for 98 yards, giving him 298 catches since entering the league in 2016 — surpassing Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, both with 288, for the most by a player in his first three seasons in NFL history.
A week after being held to a season-low 176 yards total offense in a 13-10 loss to Dallas that ended a 10-game winning streak, the Saints started slowly again.
Winston threw a pair of TD passes to Cameron Brate, the latter a 1-yarder set up by Adarius Taylor’s interception to put the Bucs up 14-3 at halftime. The fourth-year pro also threw an 11-yarder to Brate on the opening drive of the game.
The game turned in the third quarter when Brees weathered losing a fumble at his own 27 and later took advantage of the Saints blocking a punt to set up his TD pass to Line, along with Alvin Kamara’s 2-point conversion that trimmed Tampa Bay’s lead to 14-11.
In addition to missing a 40-yard field goal after Carl Nassib sacked Brees, forcing a fumble Jason Pierre-Paul recovered early in the third quarter, Cairo Santos also had a 46-yard attempt deflect off the right upright in the first half for Tampa Bay, which finished with 279 yards — more than 160 below its league-leading season average.
“Going into the second half I thought that we had an opportunity to put a fork into them, but they got a boost of confidence from a missed field goal, a punt blocked,” Bucs tackle Demar Dotson said.
“We couldn’t get anything going on offense,” coach Dirk Koetter added. “Fourteen points isn’t going to do it against the Saints.”
Brees’ TD run put the Saints ahead early in the fourth quarter. Mark Ingram scored on a 17-yard run to make it 25-14. Will Lutz tacked on a 36-yard field goal in the closing minutes.
Pressured relentlessly in the second while the Saints were taking control of the game, Winston finished 18 of 38 for 213 yards, two touchdowns and one interception — an end-zone throw picked off by Marshon Lattimore with 1 second remaining.
The Bucs had 32 yards in the second half until Winston completed passes of 16, 12 and 21 to march into Saints territory on the final drive.
And, penalties hurt Tampa Bay all day long, including an unnecessary roughness penalty on Bucs center Ryan Jensen late in the second quarter.
At one point, a frustrated Winston was seen arguing on the sideline with Jensen.
“Brothers have disagreements,” Winston said of the exchange. “It wasn’t that much.”
The Saints ran the ball nine times for just 3 yards in the first half. They stuck with the game plan, though, and finished with 100 on 30 attempts. Ingram had 52 yards on 13 carries, and Kamara rushed for 51 yards on 12 attempts.
Since failing to force a turnover on defense for seven consecutive games, the Bucs have 10 takeaways over the last three weeks. The Bucs have seven interceptions over that stretch after only having one in the first 10.
Saints: LT Terron Armstead was inactive, replaced by Jermon Bushrod.
Buccaneers: With WR DeSean Jackson (thumb) inactive for the second straight week, Chris Godwin started. Andrew Adams started in place of S Justin Evans (toe) and CB Carlton Davis II (knee) was replaced by Ryan Smith. ... LB Kevin Minter left in the second quarter with a calf injury and did not return.
Saints: at Carolina next Monday, last of three consecutive road games.
Buccaneers: at Baltimore next Sunday.