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(Sunday, January 2nd)
Final Score: Tampa Bay 23, New Orleans 13
New Orleans, LA (Sports Network) - Josh Freeman threw for 255 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and Tampa Bay finished its season with a 23-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
Freeman was highly efficient, completing 21-of-26 passes for the Buccaneers (10-6), who notched their first victory against a team over .500 to win 10 games for the first time since 2005. Mike Williams recorded his 11th touchdown reception of the season, a Buccaneers record.
Rookie LeGarrette Blount ran for 66 yards to give him 1,007 in his surprisingly strong rookie campaign.
Tampa Bay needed both Green Bay and the Giants to lose in order to make the playoffs, but both won to knock the Bucs out of contention.
"There were a number of games that we'll look back at and say, 'We should've won that game,'" Freeman said. "10 wins -- that's what we were striving for, but it was a race to 10. We finished in the last week."
Drew Brees played into the fourth quarter for the Saints and finished with 196 yards passing with one touchdown and an interception on 22-of-38 throws. New Orleans (11-5) had something to gain only if the Falcons had lost to the Panthers, so Brees was lifted in the fourth when Atlanta took a substantial lead over Carolina.
New Orleans is the fifth seed in the NFC and will travel to play the Seahawks on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. (et). Seattle beat St. Louis on Sunday night to clinch the NFC West title.
"Last year, we lost three at the end of the season going into the playoffs, and everyone questioned our approach," Brees said. "We knew what we were doing. I feel like we have enough experience, we've got enough guys who have been together for long enough to know what we need to do."
The Saints tied the game, 10-10, on Garrett Hartley's 45-yard field goal to open the second half, but Tampa Bay came back with two straight scoring drives to take the lead for good.
Micheal Spurlock returned the ensuing kickoff 69 yards to the New Orleans 33, and Connor Barth's 32-yard field goal gave the Buccaneers a three-point advantage.
On the next Saints drive, Brees was pressured in the pocket and hit as he tried to throw, resulting in a fumble that Alex Magee recovered. The Buccaneers chose to go for it on 4th-and-1 from the 18 rather than extend the lead with a field goal try. Freeman faked the quarterback sneak, dropped back and threw a high-arching pass that Williams leaped and grabbed in the end zone for a 20-10 lead with two minutes left in the third.
Hartley brought New Orleans back to within seven following his 38-yard field goal with 11:17 left in the fourth, and Blount fumbled the ball away moments later, giving the Saints a game-tying drive opportunity with 9:15 to play.
At this moment, however, Brees was lifted from the game, and backup Chase Daniel was unable to muster any offense.
The Saints punted the ball away after a three-and-out, and Freeman's 54-yard pass play to Dezmon Briscoe set up Barth's 48-yard field goal to give Tampa Bay a 10-point lead with four minutes left.
Barth ended the game's first drive with a 43-yard field goal, and New Orleans responded with a 13-play, 78-yard series that ended on a Brees four-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham.
The Buccaneers found the end zone for the first time with 6:40 remaining until halftime. After Julius Jones fumbled for New Orleans inside the Tampa Bay five, the visitors moved 96 yards in 11 plays. Maurice Stovall caught a tipped pass on the right sideline for a 38-yard reception, and Briscoe's two-yard touchdown catch made it a 10-7 game.
Brees was intercepted for the 12th straight game, the longest streak in the NFL since Detroit's Jon Kitna in 2006...The teams split the season series, with New Orleans winning, 31-6, in Week 6...The Buccaneers outgained the Saints, 317-305...Reggie Bush led New Orleans in rushing with 70 yards on nine carries. Adrian Arrington was the Saints' leading receiver with 79 yards on seven catches...Briscoe finished with four catches for 65 yards.
01/02 23:56:12 ET