Saints look to bounce back from last week's loss by evening season series with Buccaneers
New Orleans saw its long winning streak end in somewhat shocking fashion last week and now has a chance to avenge its only other loss of the season when the Saints take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Last Thursday, Dallas' defense limited Drew Brees and company to just 176 total yards as the Cowboys ended New Orleans' 10-game winning streak with a 13-10 victory in AT&T Stadium.
For the Saints (10-2) it represented the fewest yards in a game since Sean Payton became head coach in 2006. They also did not score in the first half for the first time since a divisional round playoff game at Seattle during the 2013 season. The 10 points were the fewest in a game since managing just six in a road loss to Houston on Nov. 29, 2015. Prior to last week's game, New Orleans had scored 45, 51, 48 and 31 points over the previous four contests.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay’s roller-coaster ride highlighted with revolving quarterbacks is on another upswing. The Buccaneers (5-7) have won their last two games to climb out of the NFC South basement and halt a four-game losing streak. The Bucs haven't been officially eliminated from the playoff conversation, but they need to keep winning if they want to keep their faint postseason hopes alive.
And don't forget, Tampa Bay won the first round between these two teams, shocking New Orleans 48-40 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to open the season. Ryan Fitzpatrick torched the Saints for 417 passing yards and four touchdowns, while running for another score. Fitzpatrick is now backing up Winston, who was suspended in Week 1.
New Orleans at Tampa Bay
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 9 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -8
1. Can the Saints revitalize their passing attack?
After blistering opponents early in the season, New Orleans' offense has cooled off somewhat in recent weeks. Drew Brees has totaled 298 passing yards in the last two games, although he does have five touchdown passes in that same span. He's also thrown an interception in each game after tossing just one over the first 10.
The good news is that Tampa Bay's defense may be the cure for what ails the Saints' offense. The Buccaneers are 28th in the league against the pass at 274.4 yards per game, but more importantly have surrendered 28 touchdown passes (second most in the NFL) compared to just seven interceptions. Opponents also are completing an NFL-high 72.4 percent of their pass attempts and here comes Brees, the league's most accurate quarterback (75.5 percent).
Even though the Bucs won the first meeting back in Week 1, Brees finished that game with a season-high 439 passing yards and three touchdowns, completing 83 percent of his attempts (37-for-45) in the process. Tampa Bay may be playing better as of late, but this defense couldn't really stop Brees and company the first time and now the Bucs get a Saints' offense that's eager to show last week's pitiful showing was a fluke.
2. Will Winston be able to repeat what Fitzpatrick did to the Saints?
Tampa Bay stunned New Orleans in Week 1 on the strength of Ryan Fitzpatrick's 453 total yards and five total touchdowns (four passing). It's the only game in which the Saints have given up more than 400 yards through the air this season, as Fitzpatrick finished with 417 on 21-of-28 passing.
After missing the first three games due to suspension, Winston has played in seven games, making five starts. There have been some rough moments, including a four-interception showing in Week 8 at Cincinnati in which Fitzpatrick replaced Winston late in the third quarter. But then Fitzpatrick struggled three weeks later against the Giants, leading to another change. Winston has started the past two games, both wins, and has been solid in each of them, throwing four touchdown passes with no interceptions.
Winston and Fitzpatrick are similar in that both can be quite effective from the pocket, provided they minimize the mistakes. Winston has seem to have found his rhythm and now gets to face the league's 30th-ranked passing defense (279.3 ypg). Should Winston revert back to his old ways, Buccaneers head coach Dik Koetter may have to give Fitzpatrick another shot. After all, it worked out pretty well the first time.
3. Who plays with more urgency?
New Orleans’ offense regressed to a level of ineffectiveness never seen since Sean Payton and Drew Brees arrived in the Crescent City 12 years ago. Despite that stinker against Dallas, the Saints need just one more victory to wrap up the NFC South title. They also are still in the hunt for the top seed in the NFC as they hold the tiebreaker over the Los Angeles Rams (11-1). Either way, you know New Orleans would like to guarantee home-field advantage in the playoffs for as many rounds as possible. So will the Saints come out in a rage and take out their frustrations on the Buccaneers?
On the other sideline, you have a Tampa Bay team that is still in playoff contention. The Bucs trail a bunch of teams but stranger things have happened. Players and coaches alike face uncertain futures with the team, so they no doubt want to continue to build off this modest two-game winning streak. This team also knows it can beat New Orleans, since it has already done that. So can the Bucs take advantage of their recent momentum and continue to befuddle their division rivals?
The Saints lost more than a game against the Cowboys. They no longer hold the lead in the race for the top seed in the NFC. They can clinch the NFC South title with a win on Sunday, but the path to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs has gotten tougher. But after last week's embarrassing performance, there's no doubt Sean Payton will have his team focused and ready to go. The Saints also haven't forgotten about their season-opening loss at home to the Buccaneers either.
Tampa Bay is still mathematically alive for a postseason berth. Of course, it will require the Bucs to keep winning and get some assistance from more than one team. However, a season sweep of their division rivals would be a nice highlight, regardless of what their final record ends up being. But New Orleans is a team that just saw its 10-game winning streak come to an end. Tampa Bay hasn't won three in a row since the 2016 season. Look for normalcy to be restored at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.
Prediction: Saints 35, Buccaneers 13
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.