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 will open the NFC playoffs on the road against the winner of the Sunday night game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. The Saints crushed the Cowboys 49-17 at home on Nov. 10 but did not play Philadelphia's 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.
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.
What the Buccaneers said
"There is nothing else you can do. You do the best. That is what I have done my whole career. That is what I did this week. I assume that the people we have in that staff room, they do the same thing. Our players have been great. They have had a lot of adversity thrown at them. You stick together and keep fighting." -- Coach Greg Schiano, on whether this game could determine his future with the Bucs.
What the Saints said
"This is a great confidence builder. We moved the ball very effectively today (468 yards in total offense) and had some big plays. We haven't had a game with this many big plays in awhile. We were just sharp in all regards. We were good on third down (7 of 13), good in the red zone (3 of 3). That's winning football. It's taking care of the football. We're going into the playoffs on a high note." -- Quarterback Drew Brees.
What we learned about the Buccaneers
1. Whatever happens with coach Greg Schiano, they should ditch that fake field goal on fourth-and-10 and instead kick a 42-yard field goal. Take the points. Tampa Bay still was very much in the game, trailing only 28-14, just before the half. A field goal would have made it an 11-point game, and the Bucs had the added benefit of receiving the second-half kickoff.
"We really had not been doing a great job stopping them, so I thought it was going to take touchdown, not field goals (to win)," Schiano said. "In retrospect, I probably would like to have it back. I thought we would have an opportunity to stun them. In retrospect, bad call."
2. The Bucs entered the game as one of the most penalized teams in the NFL and left the same way, picking up eight more penalties for 78 yards. But there is some hope for the Bucs with the performance of rookie quarterback Mike Glennon, who completed 22 of 41 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns, including a 48-yarder on a flea flicker to Tiquan Underwood.
"There were a lot of things that happened this season, but we all stuck together as a team," Glennon said. "It wasn't the season we wanted with our record, but it's good to see our group of guys stuck together the whole way through. There was no finger-pointing, and hopefully as a unit now we will be stronger going forward because of the things we went through this season."
What we learned about the Saints
1. Is coach Sean Payton worth the money? You figure it out. With Payton watching from afar due to an NFL-imposed exile last season, the Saints went 7-9 under interim coaches Joe Vitt and Aaron Kromer and finished third in the NFC South. The Saints have made the playoffs 10 times in their 47-year history -- and five have come under Payton in his seven active seasons.
The Saints have made the playoffs four of the last fives seasons and have won at least 11 games four of the last five seasons. Payton is 16-0 his last two seasons at the Superdome.
"I thought getting (defensive coordinator) Rob (Ryan) in here and bringing that change and that enthusiasm (was important)," Payton said. "For the most part, we played a complementary game throughout the year offensively, defensively and in the kicking game. That success and confidence becomes contagious."
2. Drew Brees is an equal opportunity destroyer. In leading the Saints to their 11th victory of the season, Brees completed passes to 11 different receivers, spreading the ball around to anyone who was open. Brees is the only quarterback in NFL history with two or more 5,000-yard passing seasons. He finished the year with 39 touchdowns against 12 interception. It was the 25th game of his career with at least four touchdown passes, trailing only Peyton Manning (30).
"I'm not surprised," said wide receiver Lance Moore, whose 44-yard scoping catch was his longest of the season. "Drew is a great player. He made a bunch of plays today and he spread the ball around."