Dec 16, 2012 9:21 PM by AP
NEW ORLEANS - Tampa Bay receiver Mike Williams was wide open as he broke for the end zone, then watched a pass from Josh Freeman sail far beyond his reach. On the next play, Freeman hit New Orleans defensive back Rafael Bush in the numbers for an easy interception.
It was that type of day for Freeman and the Bucs, whose fading playoff hopes ended Sunday in by far their most lopsided loss of the season, 41-0, to the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints converted Bush's interception - the second of four Freeman threw-into a touchdown that gave them a 17-0 lead after Freeman had missed a chance to make it 10-7.
"It's my job to make sure everybody is educated as to what the play is. I've got to do a better job," Freeman said. "Some of those turnovers were really odd. Chalk it up to miscommunication. Today a couple of times we didn't click as well as we should."
Freeman also lost a fumble on a sack and strip by Cam Jordan as the game got increasingly out of reach as the Bucs (6-8) failed in numerous areas where they had been competent. Coming in as the NFL leader in touchdown percentage when reaching an opponent's 20-yard line, they failed to score in three such opportunities against the Saints.
New Orleans (6-8) held Doug Martin, the NFL's fourth-leading rusher entering the day, to 16 yards on nine carries.
"We didn't perform today, and it's really tough and frustrating because we have so much talent," Bucs guard Donald Penn said.
Tampa Bay's biggest margin of defeat coming in had been eight points to Denver, 31-23, so it was hard to see a blowout loss coming, even though the Bucs had lost three straight before they arrived in New Orleans.
Brees passed for 307 yards and four touchdowns, and the Saints recorded their first shutout in 17 years.
"Even though maybe that Super Bowl trophy can't be ours this year, we still have a lot to play for," Brees said. "We have a very prideful group of guys, but also we have a group of guys that understand the big picture, and that is that we're going to be together for a long time and we can start building the foundation of something now that will carry over for years to come."
Brees avoided an interception for the first time in three games and connected on his scoring passes with tight end David Thomas, running back Darren Sproles and receivers Lance Moore and Joe Morgan. Mark Ingram added an 11-yard touchdown run.
The Saints will still be alive for a playoff berth when they kick off at Dallas next Sunday, but will have to finish in a multi-team tie at 8-8, which would require several other teams to lose their last two games. While the Bucs also could finish 8-8, they would lose all possible tiebreakers.
"I didn't get this team ready to go today for whatever that reason is," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "They fought their guts out. It's just that I didn't do a good job of getting ready and we didn't play well."
Brees had been intercepted nine times during New Orleans' recent three-game skid. That he would rebound well against Tampa Bay made sense; the Bucs came in giving up a league-worst 311.6 yards per game. Brees eclipsed 200 yards by halftime but eased off after his 34-yard touchdown to Morgan in the second half.
Ingram finished with 90 yards rushing and the Saints had their third-best total on the ground this season with 149 yards against a Tampa Bay rushing defense that came in first in the league, allowing 78.2 yards per game.
"We all, earlier in the week, I know offensively just kind of decided that, you know what? We haven't really put one together that we really want to hang our hat on," Brees said. "We just wanted to put our best out there."
Brees finished with more than 300 yards passing and four TDs for the 17th time in his career, more than any quarterback in NFL history. Dan Marino had done so 16 times.
NOTES: The Bucs were shut out for the first time since Spt. 27, 2009, against the New York Giants. ... The Saints had a halftime presentation for former left tackle Willie Roaf, who last summer became only the second Saints player inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Roaf was given the customary Hall of Fame ring as he stood behind his bronze bust, which will be returned to Canton. The only other Saints Hall of Famer is linebacker Rickey Jackson, inducted in 2010. ... The Saints last home shutout was Dec. 16, 1991, against the Los Angeles Raiders, 27-0.