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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Drew Brees sent both Saints and Buccaneers fans home happy.
The New Orleans quarterback did his part to ensure Tampa Bay picks first in next spring's NFL draft, shrugging off mistake after mistake to lead a second-half comeback to beat the Bucs 23-20 on Sunday.
An announced crowd of 59,952 was a mixture of Saints fans who had hoped their team would still have something to play for in the regular-season finale, along with Bucs faithful who watched the home team surprisingly build a 13-point halftime lead that held through the third quarter.
By the end, New Orleans fans were cheering, while Tampa Bay backers hoping the Bucs will use the No. 1 overall pick on a potential franchise quarterback were relieved.
"Any time we play, our DNA needs to be we're playing to win," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. "You just can't turn it on, turn it off some of the time. Obviously, the season hasn't been anything like we had hoped for, or our fans had hoped for, and yet I think it was important that we found a way to finish it on a good note."
As promised, Bucs coach Lovie Smith gave more playing time than usual to some of his younger players, particularly in the second half.
"With the lead if you play pretty good defense you should be able to hold onto that," Smith said. "They made a couple big plays at the end."
Brees shrugged off three interceptions — two of them stopping promising third-quarter drives — to throw for 281 yards. His 36-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston gave the Saints (7-9) their first lead with 1:57 remaining. Linebacker Junior Galette sacked Josh McCown for a safety that provided the final margin.
Doug Martin rushed for a season-best 108 yards and rookie Mike Evans set a Tampa Bay record with his 12th touchdown reception for the Bucs (2-14), who went 0-8 at home and 0-6 against NFC South rivals.
"I don't think anybody tanked it. We played the guys we played to rotate guys in and give them a look," McCown said. "As far as players are concerned, the draft, that stuff is not relevant as far to how we're playing. We execute the plays that are called. We competed hard and that's the main thing. Got a chance to evaluate some younger guys as we build this thing."
Mark Ingram scored on a 1-yard run early in the fourth quarter, trimming New Orleans' deficit to 20-14. Keenan Lewis' interception and return to the 50 led to Brees' TD pass to Colston to make it 21-20.
The Saints were eliminated from playoff contention by last week's 30-14 loss to Atlanta, leaving the Falcons and Carolina Panthers to play for the NFC South title.
Even though New Orleans had little to gain by playing Brees in the finale, Payton emphasized during the week that the Saints were playing to win.
Smith said the same, even though a victory might have hurt the team's draft position. The Bucs began the day tied for the worst record in the league with Tennessee, which dropped its finale to Indianapolis.
"Coming into the game we were going to get a good pick and nothing really changed," Smith said. "I know we're in a little better position. When you're down there that's one consolation, I guess, from the season we've had."
In building a 20-7 halftime lead, the Bucs outgained the league's No. 1 offense 248 yards to 118, including a whopping 148-89 advantage on the ground, where both Martin and rookie Charles Sims were effective.
It flipped after halftime, with the Saints rolling up 220 yards to Tampa Bay's 32.
NOTES: Evans and Vincent Jackson caught passes on the first two plays of the game, making them the first tandem of Bucs receivers to top 1,000 yards in the same season. It's the fourth straight 1,000-yard season — third with Tampa Bay — for Jackson, who left the game later in the first quarter and did not return. ... Colston's TD reception was his 68th from Brees, giving them sole possession of fifth place on the all-time list for most TD pass plays by a quarterback-wide receiver combination.
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