Colston had another big game Sunday, catching 11 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown to help the NFC South leaders beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-14 and reach the midpoint of the season with twice as many wins as they had last year.
The Saints (6-2) are off to their best start since 2002 with first-year coach Sean Payton calling the plays and Colston, a seventh-round draft pick from Hofstra, emerging as one of Drew Brees’ most reliable targets.
Brees threw for 314 yards and three TDs.
“The most important thing is we’re 6-2. That’s No. 1 in my mind,” Colston said. “Personal accolades, they can only take you so far.”
Despite playing without injured receiver Joe Horn, and with Bush at less than full strength because of a sore ankle, the Saints had more than enough firepower to finish a sweep of struggling division rival Tampa Bay (2-6) and rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski.
Colston, who has seven touchdowns, had a leaping 15-yard TD grab that gave the Saints an early lead against the notoriously slow-starting Bucs. He also made several clutch plays on third down, frustrating Tampa Bay’s overworked defense.
“We’ve got a lot invested in this season. We’ve been saying that from Day 1,” said Colston, who has three 100-yard games. “It’s a team of great character, and a team that’s going to fight ‘til the end.”
Tampa Bay, which has only scored seven points in the first quarter, rallied from a 17-0 deficit with Gradkowski throwing two touchdown passes of 44 and 17 yards to Joey Galloway in the second quarter.
The TDs made it close at the half, but New Orleans was hardly rattled.
Deuce McAllister waltzed through the middle untouched on a 3-yard TD run in the third quarter, then Brees threw his second scoring pass to Devery Henderson, who had three catches for 111 yards and scored on receptions of 52 and 45 yards.
“It’s a different team than a year ago,” Payton said. “We’ve just got a whole different group of people.”
The final score could have been worse.
Charles Grant sacked Gradkowski and recovered a fumble at the Bucs 4 with 2:07 remaining. But instead of trying to score, Brees took a knee on four consecutive snaps and gave the ball back to Tampa Bay with 30 seconds left.
By that time, most of the crowd of 65,561 had fled the stadium. Clad in all black, Bucs coach Jon Gruden apologized to fans for a dismal performance and made light of his sideline attire.
“I feel like it was a good selection of clothes,” Gruden said. “That’s about all I did well today.”
Brees completed his first 11 passes and finished 24-of-32 with no interceptions. He threw three picks, and New Orleans turned the ball over five times during a 35-22 loss to Baltimore the previous week.
The Saints scored on their first three possessions, building a 17-0 lead while outgaining the Bucs 165 yards to 6. With Tampa Bay’s offense going three-and-out on six straight possessions to start the game, it looked as though the rout was on.
But Gradkowski has had a knack of rallying his team, especially at home, where he threw a touchdown pass in the final minute to beat Cincinnati and marched the Bucs into position for a 62-yard game-winning field goal against Philadelphia two weeks ago.
The rookie was 3-of-10 for 9 yards before going 9-of-12 for 132 yards on the TD drives that got Tampa Bay back in it. Besides completing four passes for 97 yards to Galloway on the marches, Gradkowski scrambled for 8 yards on third-and-7 to help set up the receiver’s second TD.
Gradkowski completed 18 of 31 passes for 185 yards and no interceptions. Galloway has had big days against New Orleans with seven TDs in the last five games between the teams, but didn’t have a catch in the second half Sunday.
“We’re just not getting the job done on offense,” said Bucs running back Cadillac Williams, held to 39 yards on 12 carries. “It’s as simple as that.”
Bush had a tough day, too.
The second pick in the draft ran 11 times for minus-5 yards, caught four passes for 22 yards and returned two punts for 20.
“Obviously as a competitor you want to be out there making plays and making big runs for your team. But at the same time, it doesn’t always work in your favor,” Bush said.
“For us, we’ve just got to remain patient and it will come. The main goal for us today was just to get to 6-2.”
With Colston stepping up, that wasn’t a problem.
Horn missed the game because of a groin injury. … Saints reserve CB Jason Craft left with a concussion and didn’t return. … McAllister rushed for 123 yards against Tampa Bay on Oct. 8, but was held to 32 yards on 15 attempts Sunday.
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