NEW ORLEANS -- If there is a football heaven, the New Orleans Saints experienced nirvana this season in the serene, climate-controlled conditions of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, posting an 8-0 record and clinching a spot in the NFC playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons Sunday by pounding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 42-17.
But now, after finishing 11-5, the Saints' reward is a wild-card playoff game on the road. Even quarterback Drew Brees understands the road this year for the Saints has been more hell (with a 3-5 record) than heaven.
But after throwing first-half scoring passes Sunday to four different receivers -- 44 yards to wide receiver Lance Moore, 10 yards to tight end Jimmy Graham, 41 yards to wide receiver Robert Meachem and 76 yards to wide receiver Kenny Stills -- Brees said the Saints are extremely confident of their ability to take the long road to another Super Bowl as the NFC's sixth seed.
The Saints open the NFC playoffs on Saturday in Philadelphia against the Eagles. New Orleans did not play Philadelphia and its fast-break offense this season.
"You don't know when you'll get another shot, so you have to take advantage of every opportunity," said Brees, who completed 24 of 31 passes for 381 yards and finished the season with 5,162 passing yards, his third consecutive season of at least 5,000 yards.
"It's right there in front of us," Brees added. "There's no one that scares us, and there's no place where we don't think we can go and get a win. That gives us a lot of confidence."
Brees said the Saints' road woes are not cause for concern, even though the Saints averaged just 20.3 points per game on the road versus 34.0 points at home. But not many teams, Brees said, have the kind of offensive balance the Saints have shown throughout the season, especially with the running game showing some late-season signs of life.
"We're as complete an offense as anyone out there," Brees said. "We can run the ball, control the game with the passing game as well as make big plays. You combine all those things and that makes you feel very confident to go and win in whatever way you need to."
Rather than dwell on the road challenges ahead, coach Sean Payton reminded his team of the journey they had taken this season. After being suspended for the entire 2012 season -- in which the Saints missed the playoffs -- Payton returned and got the Saints back on course.
"You're always wanting to play your best football this time of year," Payton said. "I thought we played well last week (in a 17-13 loss to Carolina) but just didn't make the plays we needed at the end against a good team on the road. But this is encouraging. It's hard to win 11 games in this league. The goal at the start of every season is to win your division and get into the postseason. We're looking forward to playing in the postseason."
Brees was at his surgical best in the first half, completing his first 11 passes and guiding scoring drives of 80, 80, 57 and 80 yards. Brees was 17 of 21 for 321 yards before halftime as the Saints raced to a 28-14 lead, and he finished 24 of 31 for 381 yards. He also ran for a fourth-quarter touchdown on a 9-yard scramble up the middle on third down.
"It looked like it was going to be a close play at the plate," Brees said, smiling. "I was bracing for the collision. I guess I was little quicker than I thought I was and was able to get in."
Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano said the Bucs gave up too many home-run passes.
"It's not too bad against a guy like Drew if you bleed him out," Schiano said. "When he does quick strikes and we give up six passes of 20-something yards or more, that is not how we play."
Rookie quarterback Mike Glennon kept the Buccaneers within reach in the first half, throwing a 48-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tiquan Underwood on a flea flicker and a 1-yard scoring toss to tight end Tim Wright.
Down 28-14 with 32 seconds left in the half, the Bucs attempted a fake field goal on fourth-and-10 from the New Orleans 25. It was a disaster from the start. Holder Mike Koenen, Tampa Bay's punter, was flushed to the right sideline by defensive end Cameron Jordan, and Koenen's weak underhand pass fell incomplete.
The Bucs, who opened the season by losing their first eight games, finished 4-12. Schiano is 11-20 in two seasons and may not return.
"I don't think about that," Schiano said. "It doesn't matter if it was this game or last game, when you coach, you put every waking moment into what you do."
NOTES: The Saints became the first team in NFL history to have four receivers with at least 70 catches in a season: TE Jimmy Graham (86), RB Pierre Thomas (77), WR Marques Colston (75) and RB Darren Sproles (71). ... The Saints offense exploded after coming in averaging just 16.8 points in the previous five games and not scoring a touchdown on an opening drive since Week 4. ... In his past two full seasons, Payton is 16-0 at the Superdome.