NEW ORLEANS - Finally, the New Orleans Saints were handed a bounty they could enjoy.
Playing their first game after player sanctions in the Bountygate scandal were vacated by the NFL, the Saints turned four Josh Freeman interceptions and one lost fumble into 27 points, and Drew Brees threw scoring passes to four different receivers to spark New Orleans to a 41-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
In recording their first shutout since 1995, the Saints (6-8) snapped a three-game losing streak and played their most complete game of the season. Their last shutout was a 12-0 victory over the New York Jets on Dec. 24, 1995.
"It's special, because we're playing professional football," said Saints cornerback Jabari Greer, who had two of the Saints' four interceptions. "This isn't something that comes easily. It's special given the fact that we had a very tough loss last week (a 52-27 loss to the Giants) and we rebounded."
The Saints raced to a 31-0 lead early in the third quarter on the strength of Brees' marksmanship. His scoring strikes were for nine yards to tight end David Thomas, two yards to Darren Sproles, seven yards to Lance Moore and 34 yards to Joe Morgan.
By the time Brees hit Morgan on a go route behind cornerback E.J. Biggers, he had completed 21 of 31 passes for 260 yards. Brees went to the bench midway through the fourth quarter having completed 26-of-39 for 307 yards, good for a 124.6 quarterback rating.
Mark Ingram, who rushed for a season-high 90 yards on 14 carries, said Brees told his teammates to look out this week because he was going to return to form. Brees had thrown nine interceptions in the previous three games.
"Drew is his biggest critic," Ingram said. "Everybody knows what he's capable of doing. He told us he was going to get out of it. He said, 'Watch me get out of it.' He's a pro, and that's what makes him great. He demands perfection from himself and others."
Brees said the Saints decided to get back to their offensive character by being balanced - run and pass - and taking chances whenever the opportunity presented itself, such as in the final minute of the first half when they scored a touchdown to go up 24-0.
"We have a renewed focus and renewed set of goals for these last three weeks in the way we want to close out the season," Brees said. "We know offensively we haven't really put one together. Now's the time. Certainly there was that sense of urgency."
Freeman, meanwhile, struggled mightily. He had entered the game having thrown for 1,259 yards, eight TDs and no interceptions in the previous four games against the Saints, but he looked out of sync from the start and was under pressure consistently from the Saints' normally meek defense. Freeman finished 26-of-47 for 279 yards and a 37.5 rating.
"There was some miscommunication (between Freeman and his receivers,)" Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano said. "They didn't see some things the same way, and you need to be able to do that."
Trailing 7-0, Freeman threw wide of Dallas Clark inside the Saints' 20, and Greer came up with the interception. That led to a 25-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley and a 10-0 Saints' lead.
The Buccaneers wasted a 39-yard punt return by Roscoe Parrish to the Saints' 33 when Rafael Bush picked off Freeman at the Saints' 9 and returned it 40 yards to near midfield. That possession culminated in Brees' short scoring flip to Sproles, who used a double move to beat linebacker Lavonte David for a 17-0 lead.
The Saints made it 24-0 just before halftime, using a 37-yard punt return by Sproles to set them up at the Buccaneers' 38. Tight end Jimmy Graham got plastered on a pass over the middle, but on the next play, Graham made a circus catch inside the hash marks for 24-yard gain to the Tampa Bay 7. Moore did a simple hook route and easily warded off cornerback Ahmad Black for the seven-yard scoring reception.
The Bucs lost their fourth consecutive game to drop to 6-8.
NOTES: Brees has thrown at least 20 completions in 50 consecutive games... In his first game against the Saints in October, Bucs rookie Doug Martin had 85 yards rushing on 16 carries and 37 yards on three receptions, but he was held to just 35 total yards from scrimmage Sunday... The Bucs had lost their previous three games by a combined 11 points and entered the game plus-12 in turnover margin.