NEW ORLEANS – Three and oh.
That’s what the New Orleans Saints are in games since Drew Brees’ thumb surgery thrust Teddy Bridgewater into the starting lineup at quarterback.
The latest victory was a 31-24 triumph against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome that improved the NFC South leaders to 4-1 overall.
It was Bridgewater’s most productive game as he completed 26 of 34 passes for 314 yards in the second four-touchdown-pass game of his six-year NFL career.
“He got into a rhythm,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We knew that we were playing a real good run front, so we were going to throw it a little bit more early on. I felt like we did a good job of protecting him. We got the ball down the field more.”
Bridgewater connected with Michael Thomas 11 times for 182 yards and half of the touchdowns. Jared Cook and Ted Ginn Jr. caught the other touchdowns.
“Today was a day when everything was clicking,” Bridgewater said.
The New Orleans defense had its second consecutive outstanding game. A week earlier it had three takeaways and limited Dallas to 256 yards in a 12-10 victory. On Sunday it allowed even fewer yards (252) to a team that had set a franchise scoring record in a 55-40 victory against the Rams in Los Angeles a week earlier.
Jameis Winston threw four touchdown passes against the Rams and was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week. But the Saints sacked Winston six times and he completed 15 of 27 for 204 yards and two touchdowns.
“I thought we defended the pass well. I thought we affected the quarterback,” Payton said. “I thought we affected Jameis enough and quickened the clock in his head. We went into the game understanding that the deep ball, down-the-field throws, those are something that obviously can get you beat and I thought we handled that element of the game really well.”
The Saints led 17-10 and halftime and attacked with the passing game on the first possession of the third quarter.
Bridgewater hit Thomas for a 42-yard completion that pushed him past 200 passing yards in a game for the first time as a Saint and moments later he found Ginn for a 33-yard touchdown.
The Buccaneers responded with their best drive of the game — a 17-play, 75-yard possession that ended with a 2-yard touchdown run by Peyton Barber. That cut the Saints lead to 24-17 after three quarters.
But New Orleans responded with an even longer drive.
It used 13 plays to move 91 yards, the final 12 of which came on a touchdown pass from Bridgewater to Thomas that put the Saints in command with 10:37 left in the game.
Winston and Chris Godwin, who connected on a 26-yard touchdown in the first quarter for Tampa Bay’s only lead of the game (7-3), connected again from the same distance, but with a mere 13 seconds left in the game.
Bridgewater’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Thomas gave the Saints a 10-7 lead before Matt Gay kicked a 42-yard field goal to tie the score in the second quarter.
Bridgewater’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Cook gave New Orleans the lead for good late in the second quarter.
The Saints finished with 457 yards, outgaining the Bucs (2-3) by more than 200 yards.
New Orleans converted 8 of 15 third downs and held Tampa Bay to 3 of 11, leading to a nearly seven-minute advantage in time of possession.
“I think the game came down to third down,” Bucs first-year coach Bruce Arians said, “our inability to get off the field and our inability to stay on the field.”
Now the Saints head to Jacksonville to play the Jaguars, followed by a game in Chicago against the Bears as they try to keep rolling while Brees mends.
On Saturday, Brees posted on his Instagram account a picture of him throwing a football (apparently a Nerf football) with the comment “shhhhhhhhh,” suggesting he might be ahead of schedule in his rehab.
But given the way Bridgewater and the Saints are playing, there no need for him to rush himself.