The New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will meet on Sunday for the second time this season with the two teams experiencing a bit of role reversal. It's the Saints who are looking to rebound from a loss, as New Orleans saw its six-game winning streak come to an end last Sunday at home against Atlanta. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers are coming off of their first win in more than a month after beating Arizona 30-27 at home.
Coming off of their bye week, New Orleans (7-2) turned in a putrid performance at home in a stunning 26-9 loss to Atlanta. Drew Brees was under consistent pressure throughout the game and the running game struggled despite the return of Alvin Kamara. The Saints also amassed 12 penalties for 90 yards. Now New Orleans must not only rebound from its first loss since mid-September, it must do so on a road in the midst of a four-game stretch against NFC South teams.
Tampa Bay (3-6) put an end to their four-game losing streak by outlasting Arizona 30-27. The Buccaneers had no trouble moving the ball against the Cardinals (457 yards) but needed a touchdown from Peyton Barber with less than two minutes to go to secure the win as the defense was carved up by Kyler Murray (342 passing yards, 3 TDs) and the offense committed three turnovers.
New Orleans won this season's first meeting, defeating Tampa Bay 31-24 at home back in Week 5. Teddy Bridgewater threw for 314 yards and four touchdowns in the victory. These two teams have split their annual series each of the past four seasons.
New Orleans at Tampa Bay
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 17 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The status of the Saints' offensive line
New Orleans' offensive line looked beaten and battered last week. Andrus Peat broke his forearm, so he will likely miss the rest of the regular season. Tight ends Jared Cook and Josh Hill are dealing with lower leg injuries. Center Cameron Tom and tight end Garrett Griffin are already on injured reserve.
The offensive line looked inept throughout the game. The Saints gained only 52 yards on the ground, their lowest total this season. The Falcons had sacked opponents' quarterbacks only seven times in their first eight games yet dropped Drew Brees six times in the game.
Questions abound concerning how the Saints will deal with the loss of Peat, their first-round pick in 2015. Can Will Clapp step into a full-time role after serving as a utility player? Will Nick Easton finally find his way into the starting lineup and justify the four-year contract given to him in March? Do the Saints have enough healthy players to block for Brees and the rest of the offense?
2. The Saints' first-quarter offense
The Saints have struggled in the opening quarter of games this season. In their first drives, they have scored only three times — two field goals and one touchdown. They have ended their other first possessions with three punts, two interceptions, and one missed field goal. They have scored a meager average of 2.8 points in the first quarter. They have never scored more than seven points on offense in the first quarter while being shut out four times.
For the Buccaneers, keeping opponents from starting fast has served as the key to their chances of winning. In their three victories, they have allowed a total of two field goals in the first quarter. In those wins, the opponents turned over the ball on downs, punted and kicked a field goal during their first possessions. During their six defeats, the Bucs have given up an average of 7.8 points in the first quarter. In those losses, opponents scored four times (three field goals and one touchdown) the first time that they had the ball.
If the Saints can break out of their pattern of slow starts, they could likely affect the next thing to watch.
3. The mood of the Buccaneers and their fans
Bruce Arians and Tampa Bay managment seemed to have sent a message to their team with two bold moves. He benched Vernon Hargreaves in the third quarter of the win over Arizona. Arians said that was for not sufficiently pursuing Andy Isabella, who had caught a pass and then raced 55 yards to the endzone. Two days later, general manager Jason Licht announced that he and Arians had decided to waive Hargeaves. Was this a message to the rest of the team that no one — even a former first-round pick — will be allowed to quit on a play or on the season?
How much apathy will there be in the stadium? Plenty of the fickle fans of the Buccaneers apparently jumped off the bandwagon before their most recent game. The official attendance for last Sunday numbered at 40,038. Notably, the Saints have brought a remarkable amount of their supporters to Raymond James Stadium over the past few seasons. Might the Who Dat Nation outnumber the home crowd?
The Saints received a cold slap of humility last week. They seemed poised to wrap up the division on Thanksgiving evening against Atlanta, with a showdown against the 49ers the following week for the NFC's top playoff seed. They still lead the division by two games thanks to a loss by Carolina, and they are still just one game behind San Francisco for the best record in the conference. They must focus on sweeping the Bucs and not look beyond that.
The Buccaneers are clinging to the faint hope of a playoff berth, but they would need a ton of help to win the division. They still trail the Saints by four games with seven left to play. Additionally, they already lost to the Saints in Week 4. They would have to go on a remarkable winning streak to place themselves in the conversation for a wild-card berth.
The Saints will put their ugly loss behind them while dousing the Bucs' flickering playoff hopes.
Prediction: Saints 27, Buccaneers 17
— 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.