The Tampa Bay Buccaneers couldn't overcome their own missed chances and New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.
Brees shrugged off an early interception to throw for 377 yards and four touchdown passes in the Saints' 35-28 come-from-behind victory over the Buccaneers on Sunday.
Josh Freeman threw for 420 yards and three touchdown passes for the Bucs (2-4), who scored on their first three possessions of the game to build a 21-7 lead.
Dallas Clark's 3-yard scoring reception trimmed Tampa Bay's deficit to 35-28 with four minutes left, and Freeman completed two passes to Vincent Jackson to help the Bucs get into position to possibly force overtime.
"Again, missed opportunities," Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano said. "Both offensively, defensively and even in the kicking game. We're sitting here at 2-4 now and saying this old song and dance, and that's the way it is until we get it changed. Close but no cigar. We've got to get it better."
Jackson had seven receptions for 216 yards, but failed to score on a 95-yard play in which safety Malcolm Jenkins ran him down to make the tackle at the Tampa Bay 1. LeGarrette Blount was stopped for no gain on three straight runs, then Freeman lost 4 yards on a quarterback keeper on fourth down.
"The bottom line is they made more plays," Freeman said.
Trailing by a touchdown and out of timeouts, Freeman led the Bucs from their 19 to the New Orleans 9 in the final two minutes. He threw incomplete for Jackson, who came down with the ball out of the end zone on third down. On the game's final play, Freeman rolled to his left to find Mike Williams open in the corner of the end zone.
But the receiver had been pushed out of the back of the end zone before coming back into the field of play. So, what appeared to be a possible tying catch was nullified.
"I thought we had the game tied," Williams said. "A swing of emotions. He gave me a little push. I have to be strong enough to stay inbounds."
Freeman threw TD passes of 13 yards to Tiquan Underwood and 17 yards to Jackson in the first half. Doug Martin scored on a 36-yard run for Tampa Bay.
Once Brees got the New Orleans offense on track, it hardly mattered that Jonathan Vilma wasn't the solution for the Saints' defense.
Vilma played for the first time while appealing a season-long suspension for his role in the Saints' bounty program.
While it's debatable how much Vilma's return affected the defense, the unit turned back two threats near the end zone in the second half, including the drive of the game to preserve New Orleans' second straight win.
"I tried to not let my emotions get the best of me," Vilma said. "I didn't want to put myself in a situation where I was going to hurt the team. I thought I did a good job. I didn't have any mental errors or any mental mistakes."
Brees extended his NFL record for consecutive games with at least one TD pass to 49, while leading long scoring drives on four straight possessions to turn a 14-point deficit into a 28-21 halftime lead.
"You can't make mistakes," Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "He'll find it. He'll expose it."
The Saints (2-4) barely had the ball in the third quarter, but took advantage of Tampa Bay's inability to get into the end zone when Brees put together a 12-play, 95-yard drive that Pierre Thomas finished with a 5-yard TD run that made it 35-21 with just over 13 minutes remaining in the game.
Brees threw TD passes of 17 yards to Marques Colston, 9 yards to Darren Sproles, 48 yards to Joseph Morgan and 20 yards to David Thomas to overcome the New Orleans defense yielding 513 yards. He has thrown for three or more touchdowns in five of six games this season.
"Hats off to New Orleans ... they found a way to win," Schiano said.
Vilma practiced on his surgically repaired left knee for the first time last Wednesday and was moved from the physically unable to perform list to the 53-man roster Saturday.
The ninth-year pro's return could wind up being relatively brief. The hearing on the appeal of his season-long suspension is scheduled for Oct. 30.
Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has been appointed as arbitrator for Vilma's appeal, as well as the hearings for three other players facing suspensions of various lengths.
Vilma didn't start Sunday, but he did get on the field mostly in passing situations throughout the game.
He pressured Freeman on an incompletion that was nearly intercepted by Roman Harper, and got his hands on another pass that he tipped first with his right hand and then his left before it fell incomplete.
Notes: Tampa Bay CB Ronde Barber made his 222nd start with the Bucs, which moved him past LB Derrick Brooks (1995-2008) for the most in team history. ... Vilma did not have a tackle.
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