NEW ORLEANS – A little embarrassment provided a lot of motivation for Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
One week after a humbling loss at previously winless St. Louis, New Orleans maintained its hold on the NFC South lead with a balanced attack and hard-hitting defense in a 27-16 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
"Obviously, a disappointing loss last week — we wanted to right a lot of the wrongs from that game," Brees said.
"But really, you don't need to say much more than, hey, divisional opponent, at home, a critical point in the season, a team that we just played a few weeks ago and lost to. ... A lot of reasons why we needed to win this game today."
Brees passed for 258 yards and two touchdowns, and New Orleans (6-3) gained 195 yards on the ground after amassing only 56 yards rushing in its previous game.
Several Saints players applauded coach Sean Payton's decision to distribute baseball bats as motivational props leading up to the game, a now recurring ritual Payton reserves for times when he wants to challenge his team to play with a stronger physical presence.
"It felt like a playoff game going out in pregame warmups," linebacker Scott Shanle said. "There was just a stone-cold look in everybody's eyes that we weren't messing around. We were going to take care of business today."
Despite playing without linebacker Jonathan Vilma, sidelined by a sore left knee, and losing starting cornerback Tracy Porter to a neck injury early in the game, New Orleans held Tampa Bay (4-4) without a touchdown until Josh Freeman hit Kellen Winslow with 5:33 left.
The defense set a tone early by dropping LeGarrette Blount for a loss on fourth-and-short, gang tackling the running back while safety Roman Harper stripped the ball. The play maintained a scoreless tie and the Saints took the lead for good soon after.
Brees' scoring passes went for 3 yards to Lance Moore and 21 yards to Darren Sproles. Pierre Thomas added a tackle-breaking, 9-yard touchdown.
The Bucs struggled to contain Sproles, who finished with 57 yards receiving on five catches and 42 yards rushing on four carries. Chris Ivory added 67 yards rushing and Thomas 66.
Freeman had 281 yards passing, but was routinely pressured and plagued by untimely overthrows.
The Bucs hoped to get a boost from Blount's return after he'd missed two games with a left knee sprain. He gained 72 yards on 13 carries, but also was called for a drive-stalling personal foul when he swatted his open hand across defensive end Will Smith's face mask. The Bucs settled for a field goal on that drive.
Tampa Bay was penalized nine times for 80 yards, a statistic that irked coach Raheem Morris.
"Those things we cannot allow to happen," Morris said. "It's not good enough to come to the sideline and apologize to your teammates, coaches or whoever. It's just selfish, undisciplined football."
Brees' first scoring strike to Moore in the first quarter gave him TD passes in 36 straight games, tying Brett Favre for the second-longest streak in NFL history. Brees will need to keep that streak going into next season to tie Johnny Unitas, who had scoring passes in 47 straight games.
Connecting on 27 of 36 throws, Brees also extended his NFL record of consecutive games with 20-plus completions to 29.
Bolstered by the return of starting right tackle Zach Strief, the Saints' offensive line did not allow a sack on Brees, who was hauled down six times the week before.
"We just wanted Drew to be clean," guard Carl Nicks said. "There shouldn't be any turf marks, scratches on his helmet or anything."
New Orleans led 24-6 after Thomas' touchdown in the third quarter.
Tampa Bay then converted two fourth downs during a 15-play, 73-yard drive that took 7:03 off the clock, but had to settle for Connor Barth's third field goal of the game to make it 24-9 after Freeman threw a pair of incompletions from inside the Saints 10.
Winslow's 5-yard touchdown catch later pulled the Bucs to 24-16. Brees then responded by marching the Saints 63 yards in an 11-play drive that ate 4:16 off the clock. He converted a key third-and-4 play with a 20-yard scramble, setting up John Kasay's 34-yard field goal with 1:17 left.
With the victory, New Orleans remained a half-game ahead of Atlanta (5-3) in the NFC South. The Saints visit the Falcons next week.
Tampa Bay dropped into third place with its third loss in four games.
"We played average at times today," said Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber, who watched the Bucs settle for a field goal after his interception on the Saints 33-yard line. "You generally get what you deserve in this game. We don't deserve to be top of the division right now. We aren't playing like it."
Notes: Porter hurt his neck on the second play from scrimmage while breaking up a pass with a hard hit on receiver Mike Williams. Porter lay face down for several seconds and was strapped to a stretcher by trainers and paramedics, but was able to move his extremities and gave a thumbs up before being taken to a hospital as a precaution. "It's good to get in here after the game and find out that he's doing pretty well," Payton said. ... Bucs DT Gerald McCoy left the game with a biceps injury.
(This version restores background with corrected passing yardage for Freeman)