Once Drew Brees got the New Orleans offense on track, it hardly mattered that Jonathan Vilma wasn't the solution for the Saints' leaky defense.
Vilma played for the first time while appealing a season-long suspension for his role in the Saints' bounty program and Brees shrugged off an early interception to throw for 377 yards and four touchdowns in a 35-28 come-from-behind victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
While it's debatable how much Vilma's return affected the defense, the unit turned back two threats near the end zone in the second half, including the drive of the game to preserve New Orleans' second straight win.
Brees extended his NFL record for consecutive games with at least one TD pass to 49, while leading long scoring drives on four straight possessions to turn a 14-point deficit into a 28-21 halftime lead.
The Saints (2-4) barely had the ball in the third quarter, but took advantage of Tampa Bay's inability to get into the end zone when Brees put together a 12-play, 95-yard march that Pierre Thomas finished with a 5-yard TD run that made it 35-21 with just over 13 minutes remaining in the game.
Brees threw TD passes of 17 yards to Marques Colston, 9 yards to Darren Sproles, 48 yards to Joseph Morgan and 20 yards to David Thomas to overcome the New Orleans defense yielding 513 yards. He has thrown for three or more touchdowns in five of six games this season.
Josh Freeman threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns for the Bucs (2-4), who scored on their first three possessions of the game to build a 21-7 lead. Dallas Clark's 3-yard scoring reception trimmed Tampa Bay's deficit to 35-28 with four minutes left, and Freeman completed two passes to Vincent Jackson to help the Bucs get into position to possibly force overtime.
Jackson had seven receptions for 216 yards, but failed to score on a 95-yard play in which safety Malcolm Jenkins ran him down to make the tackle at the Tampa Bay 1. LeGarrette Blount was stopped for no gain on three straight runs, then Freeman lost 4 yards on a quarterback keeper on fourth down.
Brees launched the Saints' final scoring drive from there. He also led TD drives of 80, 80, 79 and 72 on consecutive possessions in the opening half.
Vilma practiced on his surgically repaired left knee for the first time last Wednesday and was moved from the physically unable to perform list to the 53-man roster Saturday.
The ninth-year pro's return could wind up being relatively brief. The hearing on the appeal of his season-long suspension is scheduled for Oct. 30.
Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has been appointed as arbitrator for Vilma's appeal, as well as the hearings for three other players facing suspensions of various lengths.
Vilma didn't start Sunday, but he did get on the field mostly in passing situations throughout the game.
He pressured Freeman on an incompletion that was nearly intercepted by Roman Harper, and got his hands on another pass that he tipped first with his right hand and then his left before it fell incomplete.
Down a touchdown and out of timeouts, Freeman marched the Bucs from his own 19 to the New Orleans 9 in the final two minutes. He threw incomplete for Jackson, who came down with the ball out of the end zone on third down. On the game's final play, Freeman rolled to his left to find Mike Williams open in the corner of the end zone.
But the receiver had been pushed out of the back of the end zone before coming back into the field of play. So, what appeared to be a possible tying catch was nullified for illegal touching.
Freeman threw TD passes of 13 yards to Tiquan Underwood and 17 yards to Jackson in the first half. Doug Martin scored on a 36-yard run for Tampa Bay.