NEW ORLEANS — Josh Freeman and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can at least take pride in more than doubling last season’s win total and beating the defending champs on their own turf.
Freeman passed for two touchdowns and the Buccaneers defeated the New Orleans Saints 23-13 on Sunday, but were later eliminated from the postseason when Green Bay beat Chicago to clinch the final NFC playoff spot.
“It’s rough,” Freeman said as he awaited results of later games that ultimately doomed the Bucs (10-6) to an earlier vacation than they wanted. “We had a good team this year. You hate to say goodbye right now.”
Freeman passed for 255 yards, including a 2-yard toss to rookie Dezmon Briscoe in the back of the end zone, and an 18-yard TD to rookie Mike Williams on fourth-and-short late in the third quarter.
Connor Barth hit three field goals, the third from 48 yards to give the Bucs a two-score lead with 4:01 to go.
“These young guys are stepping up. Some of these guys I barely even know,” Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris said. “They play fast, they play hard, they play consistent and they play for each other.”
Even though the Bucs missed the playoffs, Freeman said, winning 10 games was “a great accomplishment and is something we can build upon.”
Reggie Bush had 70 yards rushing and 55 yards receiving for the Saints (11-5), who were locked into the fifth playoff seed in the NFC by Atlanta’s 31-10 win over Carolina and pulled several starters in an anticlimactic fourth quarter.
“We did the right thing, the smart thing. And that’s part of the reason why some guys didn’t play today when they probably could have,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who left the game with the Saints down by only one touchdown. “You’re thinking about, ‘How can we put ourselves in the best position to succeed this next week?’”
The Saints, who have never won a postseason road game, open the playoffs Saturday at Seattle, which won the NFC West by beating St. Louis on Sunday night.
Freeman, who as a rookie led the Bucs to a stunning upset in New Orleans late last season, completed 81 percent of his passes (21 of 26) and was not intercepted to finish with a quarterback rating of 133.2.
LeGarrette Blount ran for 66 yards to finish his rookie campaign with 1,007 yards rushing.
Brees was 22 of 38 for 196 yards, was intercepted once, fumbled on a sack and threw one touchdown pass to rookie tight end Jimmy Graham.
Graham’s TD gave the Saints their only lead at 7-3 in the first quarter, but he left favoring his left ankle and did not return to a Saints squad that came in with only two tight ends in uniform; Jeremy Shockey (groin) and David Thomas (right knee) were inactive.
The Saints also played most of the game without starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins and leading rusher Chris Ivory. Jenkins hurt his right knee on the first defensive series while tackling Blount along the sideline. Ivory had a left foot injury in the first half.
New Orleans opened the game without leading receiver Marques Colston (right knee) and running back Pierre Thomas (left ankle). They could return next weekend.
The Buccaneers wound up with a seven-victory improvement over their 3-13 mark in 2009.
Briscoe had four catches for 65 yards. Williams had four receptions for 40 yards and on his touchdown made a leaping grab over cornerback Jabari Greer.
Williams “has better ball skills, he had position and he’s taller,” said Freeman, who faked a sneak before throwing the pass. “I was expecting him to make that catch.”
The Saints started strong but blew a chance to expand their 7-3 lead when Julius Jones fumbled inside the Tampa Bay 5 and the Bucs’ Frank Okam recovered. Tampa Bay then marched 96 yards on 11 plays to take the lead on Briscoe’s touchdown.
Late in the first half, the Saints were driving with a chance to tie or take the lead when Brees threw his career-high 22nd interception of the season. Larry Asante’s grab along the sideline allowed Tampa Bay to take a 10-7 lead into halftime.
The Saints tied it at 10 on Garrett Hartley’s 45-yard field goal in the third quarter, but the Bucs regained the lead on Barth’s 32-yard field goal.
On New Orleans’ next drive, Brees was sacked and stripped by Alex Magee, and Tim Crowder recovered at the New Orleans 38, setting up Williams’ touchdown, making it 20-10.
“We did a lot of things that prevent you from winning games,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Some things we’ll have to clean up if we’re to have any type of success here in this second season.”