TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Drew Brees and New Orleans Saints wrapped up a disappointing season with a nice fourth-quarter comeback, one that actually may help NFC South rival Tampa Bay in the long run.
The Buccaneers clinched the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft, blowing a 13-point halftime lead on the way to a 23-20 loss on Sunday.
Tampa Bay (2-14) will have the top pick for the first time since 1987, when Vinny Testaverde was the selection. Nearly 30 years later, the Bucs could be in the market for another potential franchise quarterback who also has a Heisman Trophy.
Brees wouldn’t bite on a question about how he and the Saints (7-9) may have lent a hand to the Bucs in landing a player they’ll have to face twice a year in the future.
“I can’t really speak for them or (their) draft status or anything else,” the New Orleans quarterback said. “All I know is we came in to win this game, and we did.”
As promised, Bucs coach Lovie Smith gave more playing time than usual to some of his younger players, particularly in the second half, when the Saints outgained Tampa Bay 220 yards to 32.
Brees shrugged off three interceptions, two of them in the third quarter, to lead a pair of scoring drives to get the victory. Mark Ingram scored on a 1-yard run early in the fourth quarter, and Brees threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston to put the Saints with 1:57 remaining.
Tampa Bay had a number of young players on the field, both offensively and defensively during the second-half collapse.
The Bucs were unapologetic about the way they locked down the No. 1 pick. They began the day tied for the league’s worst record with Tennessee, which lost to Indianapolis to also finish 2-14.
“I don’t think anybody tanked it. We played the guys we played to rotate guys in and give them a look,” Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown said. “As far as players are concerned, the draft, that stuff is not relevant as far as 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.”
Smith reiterated the plan going in was to substitute a lot.
“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.”
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.
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.
It was the 68th time Colston has caught a TD pass from Brees, giving the tandem sole possession of fifth place on the all-time list for most scoring pass plays by a quarterback-wide receiver combination.
“You couldn’t have scripted a better ending, I guess, and we were all aware of it,” Brees said.
Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison top the list with 112, followed by Steve Young-Jerry Rice (85), Dan Marino-Mark Clayton (79) and Philip Rivers-Antonio Gates (74). Brees and Colston had been tied for fifth with Manning-Reggie Wayne.
“There’s some pretty prestigious names on that list,” Brees said. “Rarely do you get that type of longevity with one person.”
Some highlights and lowlights to disappointing seasons for the Saints and Bucs.
POOR PROTECTION: McCown was sacked three times Sunday, once by Junior Galette for a safety that made it 23-20. Bucs QBs were sacked 52 times this season, most since Trent Dilfer and Casey Weldon were taken down 56 times in 1995.
PUZZLING SAINTS: New Orleans won its first three home games, then lost the last five. That’s in stark contrast to losing the first four on the road, then rebounding to win four straight away from home.
RESILIENT: Brees beat the Bucs twice this season, despite throwing three interceptions in each game.
HISTORY-MAKERS: 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. Evans’ 12th TD reception set a franchise single-season record for receiving TDs.
NO. 1: The Bucs, who went 0-8 at home and 0-6 in the division, need a quarterback. Could one of the past two Heisman winners — Oregon’s Marcus Mariota or Florida State’s Jameis Winston — be in the team’s future?