New Orleans 31, Tampa Bay 24
When: 4:25 PM ET, Saturday, December 24, 2016
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana
NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, the NFL coach most frequently rumored to be on the prowl for his next job, has lived through the frustration of spending the last three seasons home for the holidays instead of participating in the playoffs.
While the 7-8 Saints once again will be on the outside looking in, their performance Saturday in a 31-24 victory over the playoff-hungry Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome -- their second straight win -- gave Payton a chance to dream about next year.
And it had nothing about him moving on to another NFL team.
"We've got some good young players I'm encouraged about, especially in the last few drafts," Payton said after the Saints dealt a near-death blow to the playoff hopes of their NFC South-rival Buccaneers, who dropped their second consecutive game to fall to 8-7.
The Bucs currently are ranked eighth among the NFC playoff seeds behind No. 6 Green Bay (9-6) and No. 7 Washington (8-6-1).
"Whatever happens after that is for the math professors to figure out," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said.
The Bucs' loss clinched the NFC South for the 10-5 Atlanta Falcons and also clinched a playoff berth for the 10-5 New York Giants. The victory had a lot of meaning to Payton, as well.
"It's all good and exciting," Payton said. "These are all important games and team wins. It's always good to get another one."
It was Payton's best player -- 37-year-old quarterback Drew Brees -- who rebounded smartly from one of his weakest performances of the season. Just 13 days ago, Brees threw three interceptions and was held without a touchdown pass in a 16-11 loss at Tampa Bay.
After beating Arizona 48-41 last week -- when Brees threw four TD passes and for 389 yards -- Brees completed 23 of 34 passes for 299 yards and one touchdown against the Bucs. It was the kind of bounce-back performance that Brees has been noted for.
Mark Ingram rushed for touchdowns of 6 and 14 yards and converted a two-point play to put the Saints up 28-14 in the second half. Ingram then closed out his 90-yard performance by bulling his way for 10 yards on third-and-1 to ice the game in the closing seconds.
The Saints also did something they have not done in many years -- string together multiple interceptions. Safety Jairus Byrd picked off Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston twice. Byrd returned the first pick 24 yards to the Tampa Bay 14, which set up Ingram's second touchdown run.
"That was just a crazy play by my part," Winston said. "No one was open. I tried to give my guy (Mike Evans) a chance. (I should have) just thrown it out of bounds and take the next play, flip the field. Just very indecisive by me and very uncharacteristic. That shouldn't happen."
Despite missing the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, Brees said he senses something special building, especially with the playmaking ability of young Saints such as wide receivers Brandin Cooks (five catches for 98 yards) and Michael Thomas (six catches for 98), safety Vonn Bell and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins.
"I know we've had some tough moments this year that prevented us from being in playoff position, but I also believe you go through a lot of those things for a reason -- to learn -- and that enables you to have success in the future," Brees said. "I believe we're right there, knocking on the door. We've got a lot of right pieces in place."+
Brees' 11-yard TD pass came on an option route to running back Travaris Cadet in the third quarter, and Ingram converted the two-point play as the Saints built a 28-14 lead. Kicker Wil Lutz added field goals of 42, 34 and 21 yards, the last coming with 11:55 left to give New Orleans a 31-21 lead.
Winston completed 23 of 35 passes for 277 yards and two scores -- a 12-yard slant to tight end Cameron Brate and a 34-yard pass to Michael Evans that cut the Saints' lead to 28-21 late in the third quarter.
After Lutz put the Saints up 31-21, the Bucs drove inside the Saints' 20-yard line with two minutes left but had to settle for Roberto Aguayo's 35-yard field goal, which made it 31-24. Cooks recovered Aguayo's onsides kick, and the Saints ran out the clock after Ingram picked up the crucial third-and-1.
"We played hard enough; we just didn't play good enough," Koetter said. "Those two turnovers led to (10 points), and we didn't get any the other way."
NOTES: Tampa Bay RB Doug Martin, averaging just 2.6 yards a carry, was a healthy scratch. Martin signed a five-year, $35 million contract ($15 million guaranteed) in the offseason after averaging 4.9 yards a carry in 2015. Martin suffered a hamstring injury early in the season but has not been on the Buccaneers' injury report. "It's a coach's decision," said Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter. "We've got four backs and we can't give them all touches." ... The Saints were eliminated from playoff contention before the kickoff when the Redskins and Packers posted victories. ... Meghan Payton, daughter of Saints coach Sean Payton, was on the sidelines shadowing a FOX sideline reporter. She is a student at Pepperdine University. ... Payton won his 94th regular-season game as New Orleans coach, moving ahead of Jim Mora (93-74 from 1986-96) for the club record.
Top Game Performances
Team Stats Summary
New Orleans will play their next game on the road against Atlanta. The Saints have a W/L % of .500 after a win and .444 after a loss.
Tampa Bay will play their next game at home against Carolina. The Buccaneers have a W/L % of .625 after a win and .429 after a loss.