Getting key players back a must for NFL playoffsNew Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) throws a 76-yard touchdown pass in the first half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Drew Brees couldn't quite suppress a smirk as he deadpanned the Saints' prescription for playing better on the road, which is where they'll be for the playoffs.
''There's three main things we need to do,'' Brees began. ''We're going to change up the Gatorade flavor, we feel good about that. We're going to change our travel sweats. We're going to change, at the hotel, the beefy mac (and cheese) recipe the night before, just kind of give it a little extra kick. We feel like those three things are going to help pull us through.''
For one last time this season, Brees and the Saints proved how tough they are to hang with in the Big Easy, clinching an NFC wild-card spot Sunday with a 42-17 rout of the downtrodden Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brees was his usual prolific self, passing for four touchdowns and even running for a score as New Orleans (11-5) concluded the regular season 8-0 at home.
But the Saints went 3-5 on the road this season, and they had little time to celebrate their widely anticipated triumph over the Bucs before fielding questions about what they can do to change their fortunes outside the Superdome.
''We're going to be told all week long that we can't win on the road,'' right tackle Zack Strief said. ''We all acknowledge why people say that, and yet, the other games don't matter - not anymore.''
If the Saints can indeed summon Superdome-like performances in the coming weeks, they'll be a dangerous No. 6 seed. New Orleans opens the playoffs Saturday night at NFC East champion Philadelphia.
Three of Brees' scoring strikes against Tampa Bay went longer than 40 yards - 76 to Kenny Stills, 44 to Lance Moore and 41 to Robert Meachem. Brees passed for 381 yards, eclipsing 5,000 yards in a season for an unprecedented fourth time. He finished the season with 5,162 yards to go with 39 touchdowns.
''We did a lot of things well today at time when we needed to,'' Saints coach Sean Payton said. ''I'm proud of how they finished. ... It's hard to get 11 wins in this league.''
Brees' other TD was a 10-yard pass to tight end Jimmy Graham.
Mike Glennon passed for 219 yards and two TDs for Tampa Bay (4-12). With doubts swirling about the future of second-year Bucs coach Greg Schiano, Tampa Bay closed the season with losses in its last three games, and four of its last five.
''Any time you win only four games, there are definitely going to be some type of changes,'' right tackle Demar Dotson said. ''Upstairs, downstairs- I don't know what it's going to be.''
The Saints had lost three of their previous four games to set up a season finale they needed to win to assure themselves of a playoff spot. They got back to the postseason for the fourth time in five seasons, the lone exception being 2012, when Payton was suspended the entire season in connection with the NFL's bounty probe.
''Obviously, Sean's a huge part of'' the Saints' return to the playoffs, Brees said. ''Four out of five years, winning an average of 12 games in every one of those (playoff) years. That's a big deal.''
Schiano, meanwhile, coached like he had nothing to lose, trying a fake field goal, which failed, and going for it three times on fourth down, converting one.
In the end, his team was overmatched, outgained 468 yards to 290.
Asked about his future, Schiano said: ''I don't think I have to say anything. That's not being smug. I come in and do my job the best that I can. That's other people's decision.''
Schiano did call a successful flea-flicker on which Glennon found Tiquan Underwood for a 48-yard score to tie it at 7.
Glennon was also intercepted by Keenan Lewis, setting up Brees' 9-yard touchdown run in the second half.
Pierre Thomas provided New Orleans' other second-half score on an 8-yard run.
Brees was 17 of 21 for 321 yards in the first half, when he threw all of his scoring passes and had a maximum 158.3 passer rating. His final line was 24 of 31 for 381 yards, no interceptions and a rating of 157.4.
Brees went over the 5,000-yard mark in style, hitting Meachem deep down the sideline to make it 21-7.
Glennon's 1-yard pass to Tim Wright in the corner of the end zone cut it to 21-14, but Stills' score made it 28-14, and the Bucs did not threaten again.
Notes: Lewis' interception was his fourth. ... Saints OLB Junior Gallette had two sacks to reach a career-high 12. ... Tampa Bay gave up season highs in yards and points. ... The Bucs have won four or fewer games in three of the past five seasons.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org