NEW ORLEANS (AP)—Drew Brees delivered on his pledge to give the Saints’ storm-weary fans what he thought they deserved.
Brees passed for 343 yards and three touchdowns against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, giving fans already jubilant about their team’s quick return from Hurricane Gustav a 24-20 season-opening triumph to celebrate as well.
Garcia was 24-of-41 for 221 yards, including a 2-yard TD pass to Ike Hilliard, which gave the Bucs a brief 20-17 lead.
But Tampa Bay’s offense produced only one touchdown. The Bucs’ defense got the other in the first quarter, when blitzing linebacker Barrett Ruud hit Brees as he threw, causing a fluttering pass that Phillip Buchanon intercepted and returned 26 yards.
Bush, who vowed to come back strong from a down second season in which he never had a gain longer than 25 yards, had 112 yards receiving and 51 yards rushing. He did most of the work on what proved to be the winning drive, starting with a 29-yard gain on a short reception over the middle.
His touchdown came on a short third-down reception on which he juked Jermaine Phillips at the 25 and stiff-armed Buchanon at the 5 before diving for the pylon. Bush was close to stepping out of bounds before his dive, but Tampa Bay did not challenge the call.
After sitting out all four preseason games, flamboyant tight end Jeremy Shockey made his debut for New Orleans and had the crowd chanting his name while he celebrated a tough 10-yard catch on third-down. The play, just a few plays after his 26-yard reception, set up Martin Gramatica’s field goal late in the third quarter, which tied it at 10.
Shockey finished with six catches for 54 yards.
Henderson’s TD reception, a career-long catch for him, came after Brees had drawn the Bucs’ offside and then took a shot downfield for his fastest receiver, who was wide open after Ronde Barber fell down.
The play put the Saints up 17-13 in the final minute of the third quarter.
Tampa Bay finally converted its first third down early in the fourth quarter on Joey Galloway’s 13-yard reception, which extended an 11-play, 73-yard drive that ended with Hilliard’s score with 10:43 left.
Tampa Bay’s Earnest Graham led all rushers with 91 yards on 10 carries. His career-long 46-yard gain, on which he broke four tackles, set up Matt Bryant’s 33-yard field goal that gave the Bucs a 13-10 lead in the third quarter.
While practicing in Indianapolis last week, where the Saints set up shop to stay out of Gustav’s way, Brees said he was pleased the regular-season opener would be played in New Orleans, as scheduled, so the team could give the region’s fans “what they deserve.”
The Saints took the opening kickoff 76 yards on six plays, capped by Brees’ scoring pass to Patten on a third-and-short play. Phillips and fellow Bucs defensive back Aqib Talib hesitated on a play fake, letting Patten get behind them.
A rash of penalties helped stall New Orleans’ next few drives as the game evolved into a defensive struggle for the rest of the first half. The Bucs had only four first downs until their last drive of the second quarter, which covered 61 yards in 1:25 to set up Bryant’s 37-yard field goal, giving Tampa Bay a 10-7 halftime lead.