TAMPA, Fla. — With his team’s 2014 season finale in the books, Saints quarterback Drew Brees found himself able to look on the bright side.
He threw a touchdown late in the fourth quarter of a game at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday in which the Saints (7-9) beat the Buccaneers (2-14) 23-20, and he did that after tossing interceptions to three players who had not intercepted a pass all season.
Yet it all served as fleeting consolation, because the game never offered the Saints any possibility of making the playoffs after they were eliminated from postseason contention following a 16-point loss at home to Atlanta a week earlier.
“It showed ... resilience,” Brees said of the Saints, who trailed 20-7 early in the fourth quarter on Sunday before storming back for the win.
But he admitted “it’s tough” knowing his ninth season in New Orleans and 14th in the NFL ended without a playoff appearance. It’s natural — there’s a finite number of opportunities he’s going to have to win a Super Bowl ring that would accompany the one he won with the Saints in February 2010.
“We’re not getting any younger,” Brees said. “You never know when it’s going to be your last. That’s why these games are always tough.”
It would’ve been tougher still for Brees if the Saints hadn’t been able to overcome the interceptions he threw against the Bucs. One of the reasons New Orleans didn’t erase a 13-point lead Tampa Bay built at halftime sooner was because Brees was picked off by cornerback Leonard Johnson on a pass deflected at the line of scrimmage in the second quarter, and he was intercepted on off-target throws toward the end zone in the third quarter by cornerback Bradley McDougald and safety Keith Tandy.
McDougald had never intercepted an NFL pass. Tandy and Johnson hadn’t intercepted passes since last year.
“Some of those were frustrating because you feel like there’s nothing you can do about it, you know?” said Brees, who finished 2014 with 33 touchdown throws and 17 interceptions but was 48 yards shy of registering his fourth-straight season with at least 5,000 yards passing. “You’re going to the right place, you’re making the right decision, your timing was good — you just have to have a short-term memory.”
Part of what cost the Buccaneers the chance to win their first game at home since Dec. 8, 2013, was that they managed only three points off Brees’ interceptions. They kicked a field goal after Johnson’s pick, but they punted after the other two.
Having cut the deficit to 20-14 with a 1-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram early in the fourth quarter, Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis set up Brees and the offense at midfield with an interception off a dropped pass late in the game. Then, on a third-and-6 from Tampa Bay’s 36, Brees connected with veteran receiver Marques Colston short and over the middle. Colston outran two defenders for a score along the left sideline to help give New Orleans a 21-20 lead with 1:57 to go.
The Bucs gave up two points on a safety on their ensuing drive. They attempted an onside kick but failed to recover it, and the Saints ran out what little time was left.
Brees — who was sacked twice — ultimately had 281 yards as well as his TD strike to Colston, while going 24-of-38. That wasn’t good enough to prevent his passer rating from dipping to its lowest level in a regular-season game since 2012 (61.4), but it sent a disappointing Saints season out on a winning note.
For that, Brees’ colleagues credited him.
“Drew is a tough guy ... not just mentally but physically,” backup tight end Benjamin Watson said. “He took some shots, had some ups and downs in the game but was able to regain his composure.”
“He just kept firing,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Obviously, down the stretch, there were a number of big throws that he made.”
When it was Brees’ turn to talk after the game, he praised the defense for preventing the Bucs from capitalizing on his turnovers. But he couldn’t let his news conference end without lamenting a stretch of five consecutive games in New Orleans in November and December that his team lost. Those are the two months when seasons are typically either forged or broken.
Alternately, the Saints won their final four away games, all of which were outdoors, where New Orleans occasionally struggles.
“If you told me at the beginning of the year we were going to win our last four road games in a row, I’d be like, ‘It’s a 12-4 season,’ ” Brees said. “Losing five (at home) really kind of shocked us all.”