Jonathan Bachman, Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees would like to think the Saints will build on their latest commanding performance and avoid sliding back into the puzzling pattern of inconsistency that has defined their past month.
At the very least, New Orleans will spend another week atop the NFC South after Brees passed for two scores and the Saints racked up 195 yards rushing in a 27-16 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday.
"This is a pretty critical time for us, this month of November," Brees said. "It's a time when a lot of teams separate themselves from the rest of the pack, and we want to be one of those teams. And this is when you want to be on a roll, so hopefully this is the start of that."
New Orleans (6-3) has alternated sloppy losses with impressive victories during its past four games. A loss marred by four turnovers in Tampa Bay last month was followed by a stunning 62-7 victory over Indianapolis. Then came a humbling loss at previously winless St. Louis a week ago.
The loss to the Rams was particularly troubling for New Orleans' offensive line after Brees was sacked six times and the Saints managed only 56 yards rushing.
This week, the offensive line got a boost from the return of starting right tackle Zach Strief, who'd missed five games with a sprained right knee. The running game was far more productive and Brees was not sacked.
"The big thing for us right now is to play like this every week, to not have letdowns," Strief said. "This is a talented team and a team that has the ability to be successful."
Brees passed for 258 yards and touchdowns of 3 yards to Lance Moore and 21 yards to Darren Sproles. Pierre Thomas added a tackle-breaking, 9-yard scoring run.
Despite playing without linebacker Jonathan Vilma, sidelined by a sore left knee, and losing starting cornerback Tracy Porter to a neck injury early in the game, New Orleans held Tampa Bay (4-4) without a touchdown until Josh Freeman hit Kellen Winslow with 5:33 left.
The defense set a tone early by dropping LeGarrette Blount for a loss on fourth-and-short, gang tackling the running back while safety Roman Harper stripped the ball. The play maintained a scoreless tie and the Saints took the lead for good soon after.
The Bucs struggled to contain Sproles, who finished with 57 yards receiving on five catches and 42 yards rushing on four carries. Chris Ivory added 67 yards rushing and Thomas 66.
Freeman had 281 yards passing, but was routinely pressured and plagued by untimely overthrows.
The Bucs hoped to get a boost from Blount's return after he'd missed two games with a left knee sprain. He gained 72 yards on 13 carries, but also was called for a drive-stalling personal foul when he swatted his open hand across defensive end Will Smith's face mask. The Bucs settled for a field goal on that drive.
Tampa Bay was penalized nine times for 80 yards, a statistic that bothered coach Raheem Morris.
"Those things we cannot allow to happen," Morris said. "It's not good enough to come to the sideline and apologize to your teammates, coaches or whoever. It's just selfish, undisciplined football."
Brees now has a TD pass in 36 straight games, tying Brett Favre for the second-longest streak in NFL history. Brees will need to keep that streak going into next season to tie Johnny Unitas, who had scoring passes in 47 straight games.
Connecting on 27 of 36 throws, Brees surpassed 20-plus completions for his NFL record 29th straight game.
With 3,004 yards passing in 2011, Brees also is the first NFL player to eclipse the 3,000-yard mark in the first nine games of a season.
New Orleans remains a half-game ahead of Atlanta (5-3) in the NFC South and visit the Falcons next.
Tampa Bay dropped into third place with its third loss in four games.
"We played average at times today," said Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, who watched his team settle for a field goal after his interception on the Saints 33-yard line. "You generally get what you deserve in this game. We don't deserve to be top of the division right now."
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