There wasn't much at stake for the Saints - at least after about 30 minutes of the Falcons rout of Carolina - and they looked the part, falling 23-13 to the Bucs in a game that meant a lot to Tampa.
It was the Bucs' first win against a team with a winning record this year. It was also a game that meant little to the Saints who will now travel to play either Seattle or St. Louis next weekend.
Injuries though may be a different story with the Saints having TEJimmy Graham, RBChris Ivory and DBMalcolm Jenkins leave at different stages of the contest.
Little information was provided about the extent of their injuries and little will likely be revealed by the Saints if form holds true.
Tampa Bay (10-6) entered the game needing a victory and losses by both the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers, who played later Sunday, to make the playoffs.
Freeman passed for 255 yards, including a 2-yard scoring strike to Dezmon Briscoe in the back of the end zone, and an 18-yard TD to Mike Williams on fourth-and-short.
Connor Barth hit three field goals, the third from 48 yards to give the Bucs a two-score lead with 4:01 to go.
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 the fourth quarter.
Freeman, who led the Bucs to a stunning upset in New Orleans late last season, completed 81 percent of his passes (21 of 26) in his second trip back 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.
Drew Brees was 22 of 38 for 196 yards, was intercepted once, fumbled on a sack and threw one touchdown pass.
The short scoring pass to rookie tight end Jimmy Graham gave the Saints their only lead at 7-3 in the first quarter, but Graham left the game favoring his left ankle and did not return to a Saints
squad that came in with only two tight ends in uniform because 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 rookie running back Chris Ivory. Jenkins hurt his right knee on the first defensive series of the game while tackling Blount along the sideline. Ivory had a left foot injury in the first half.
New Orleans also opened with the game without leading receiver Marques Colston (right knee) and running back Pierre Thomas (left ankle).
They could return when the Saints open the playoffs next weekend on the road against the winner of Sunday night's game between the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks.
The much-improved Buccaneers at the very least assured themselves a seven-victory improvement over their 3-13 mark in 2009.
Briscoe had four catches for 65 yards and Williams had four receptions for 40 yards and made a difficult leaping grab over cornerback Jabari Greer on his touchdown.
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. The Bucs 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 sidelined 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 on the New Orleans 38, setting up Tampa Bay's final touchdown that made it 20-10.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)