By Mike Triplett, The Times-Picayune
November 22, 2009, 9:40PM
TAMPA, FLA. -- Let the hype begin.
Actually, the buildup to next Monday night's showdown against the New England Patriots at the Superdome began when the New Orleans Saints' schedule came out in April.
But now that the Saints have dispensed with their first 10 opponents -- the latest an overwhelmed Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad in Sunday's 38-7 rout -- the anticipation will reach a fever pitch.
"Everyone's going to blow this game up to be the biggest thing in the world," Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said. "We've just got to keep our composure and not let anything affect us, not have any distractions, and just follow the mindset we've had all year."
Momentum and confidence obviously won't be problems for the Saints since they've won every game so far, but especially because of the way they played Sunday.
After a four-week stretch of sloppy performances, the Saints ran away with an efficient and thorough victory over the struggling Buccaneers (1-9).
"We needed a game like this to come out, to look sharp in all phases," said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who threw for 187 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Saints actually started slow on offense and trailed 7-0 after allowing a 95-yard touchdown drive. But the Buccaneers didn't show any more signs of life, as the Saints won the turnover battle 4-0 and didn't allow any sacks.
"It wasn't always pretty," Brees said. "The first half, (we were) 1-of-6 on third downs. ... Then obviously we broke the seal there in the second half and came out with a lot of points.
"If you look at us historically, especially this year, if we take care of the football and eliminate negative plays, we are very, very hard to beat. And obviously when the defense is taking the ball away like they did today and have been, it gives us so many more opportunities."
The most impressive part of the Saints' defensive dominance is that they were so depleted by injuries.
New Orleans was without starting defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter. They also kept new cornerback Chris McAlister on the bench, deciding that he's not quite in football shape yet. During the game, cornerbacks Randall Gay and Leigh Torrence were injured, causing the Saints to use backup safety Usama Young as an emergency cornerback.
"We are having a little bad luck curse right now, a little funk," said Gay, who suffered a hamstring injury in the second quarter and did not return. "But it shows the character and that the next guy has to step up.
"Hey, seven points (allowed). With four cornerbacks out, that's huge."
Rookie cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, in particular, stood out in his first NFL start. He held up all afternoon, but the highlight was a terrific athletic play to snag his first career interception in the second quarter when the score was tied at 7.
Jenkins changed direction and dove back to his left to make the catch after receiver Antonio Bryant ran one way and Tampa Bay rookie quarterback Josh Freeman threw the other.
"I jumped it, and when I jumped it (Bryant) kind of just broke off his route, because I kind of cut him off," Jenkins said. "So when the quarterback threw it anyway, I think he was anticipating him being inside. And since I took that away, he kind of just threw it to me."
Freeman, who was making his third career start, looked good on that first drive, using his legs and his powerful arm to convert three third downs, including an 18-yard touchdown strike to receiver Michael Clayton in the back of the end zone.
Freeman had a lot of time to throw on the play, and the Saints' makeshift secondary had communication problems, leaving Clayton wide open.
After that, though, the Saints' pass rush improved, and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams flummoxed Freeman with a variety of blitzes and alignments.
Freeman completed 17 of 33 passes for 126 yards, three interceptions and a fumble.
Fujita forced the fumble when he sacked Freeman on a blitz during the opening drive of the second half. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma made a great leaping catch to intercept a Freeman pass on the Buccaneers' next possession. And safety Chris Reis hauled in an interception in the final two minutes, making up for an easy interception he dropped earlier.
"Coming into this game, we knew how potent their offense was and we knew the best defense was for our offense to sustain drives," Freeman said. "We knew what we had to do to come out and win, and I put that on myself. .¤.¤. I was just a little off, and I couldn't get into a rhythm."
The Saints' potent offense eventually burned the Buccaneers.
Brees hit receiver Robert Meachem with a 4-yard touchdown pass late in the first quarter. He found Meachem again in the final minute of the first half for a 6-yard touchdown pass. And he fired an 11-yard touchdown strike to tight end David Thomas early in the third quarter after Freeman's fumble.
By then it was 24-7, and the Saints ran out the clock after that with tailbacks Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell, who combined for 167 yards on 24 carries (an average of nearly 7 yards per carry). Bell scored the final two touchdowns on runs of 3 yards and 1 yard.
"You've got to like the mentality of this team. When we get a chance to open up the game a little bit, we've been able to take advantage of that opportunity. Today was no exception," said offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb, who said it was just "a matter of time" for the Saints to win a game in this fashion again, like they had been doing in the first five games.
Now it looks like the Patriots (7-3), who defeated the Jets 31-14 on Sunday, will be getting the Saints at their best.
Although the Saints went into a bit of a slump this month -- as much as an undefeated team can be considered "slumping" -- they're rolling now, and a handful of injured players could be back by Monday night (Ellis? Greer? Gay? tailback Reggie Bush?)
"I like where we are at. I mean, we are 10-0," said Saints Coach Sean Payton, who also stressed Sunday that his team excelled on special teams, which had been an inconsistent area throughout the season. "I thought we got better today."
The Saints have now won 10 games in a row for the first time in franchise history, breaking the mark set in 1987 and matched in 1990-91.
And they could clinch the NFC South title by next week, if they win and the Atlanta Falcons (5-5) lose at home to Tampa Bay.
But Brees said the Saints haven't really accomplished anything yet, and he doesn't think they've reached their peak.
"I feel like the sky's the limit for this team," Brees said. "But like we've said all year, and it's going to get old, it's only going to get harder. Every team that we play would love to be the team to give us that first loss. And we're about to play a team who arguably has been one of the best teams in this league the last decade, somewhat of a dynasty. They know how to win, they know how to win big games. And obviously we want to be one of those teams, year in and year out, that's fighting for a championship.
"We're building something special right now. But we also have to understand that in order to get there, you've got to be able to win games like this one coming up. And obviously it's going to take a total team effort."
Mike Triplett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org