NEW ORLEANS — The Saints entered Sunday’s home finale knowing only one thing held true.
Beat Tampa Bay and they were in the playoffs, regardless of whatever happened around the league.
Their backs against the wall, New Orleans did just that.
The Saints beat the Bucs 42-17, earning the franchise’s fourth postseason berth in the past five seasons.
That was the easy part.
Because of Carolina’s win over Atlanta earlier in the day, if the Saints (11-5) are going to earn the franchise’s second conference title, they’ll have to do so on the road.
If they can replicate their performance Sunday, it might not matter where they play.
Quarterback Drew Brees carried a perfect quarterback rating through three quarters and finished the day 24 of 31 for 381 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran for a score, a nine-yard touchdown that put the game out of reach and marked the longest scoring run of the season.
Brees completed at least four passes to Jimmy Graham (five for 71 yards, one score), Lance Moore (four for 73 yards, one score) and Marques Colston (six for 67 yards) and connected with 11 different receivers.
The offense racked up 466 total yards and averaged eight yards per play as it stayed on the field for more than 32 minutes. Tampa Bay (4-12), meanwhile, couldn’t keep pace. For the ninth time this season, New Orleans held an opponent to fewer than 320 total yards. For the 10th time, it held an opponent to less than 40 percent on third downs.
The Saints hadn’t scored on an opening drive of the game since getting a field at Chicago on the first Sunday in October. They did one better this time, converting a fourth-and-one near midfield before Brees hit Moore for a 44-yard touchdown pass and a 7-0 lead.
The lead didn’t last long. Tampa Bay, playing with nothing to lose, opened the playbook up and on their fourth play, opted for a flea-flicker that fooled New Orleans’ secondary. Tiquan Underwood was completely open and walked in for a 48-yard game-tying touchdown catch.
New Orleans came right back, however, and regained the lead with a 14-yard scoring strike from Brees to tight end Jimmy Graham.
With the Saints up 14-7 late in the first quarter, Brees still had yet to throw an incompletion.
The quarterback’s first incompletion came in the second quarter, but it hardly slowed the Saints down. His 41-yard touchdown pass to Robert Meachem put him over 5,000 yards for the third consecutive season and fourth time ever and New Orleans jumped to a 21-7 lead.
Tampa Bay wasn’t going without forcing the Saints to work. The Bucs followed up the score by Meachem by driving 80 yards to cut New Orleans’ lead to 21-14 on Glennon’s 1-yard touchdown pass to Tim Wright.
New Orleans struck right back when Brees hit Kenny Stills, all alone behind the Bucs’ secondary, for a 76-yard touchdown pass and a 28-14 lead.
The Bucs opened the second half with a 13-play, 44-yard drive that ate up 8:25 off the clock, but ended only in a 54-yard Rien Lindell field goal. After all that time, the Saints still led 28-17.
Pierre Thomas pushed the lead to 18 on an eight-yard touchdown run and with 1:22 to go in the third quarter, New Orleans was all but assured of its second undefeated home campaign in the past three seasons.