The Buccaneers seek to maintain their first-place standing as the Saints try to keep postseason hopes alive
New Orleans enters Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay with its playoff aspirations on life support. The Saints’ offense sputtered, managing just 13 points in last week’s loss at home to Detroit. The Lions also put an end to Drew Brees’ streak of throwing a touchdown pass at home at 60 games, an NFL record. It was the first time he had failed to do so since Oct. 4, 2009.
In contrast, the Buccaneers are riding a huge wave of momentum. They have won four straight to tie Atlanta for first place in the NFC South. The Falcons technically remain in first place because they have a better divisional record, and the teams have already split their two meetings.
New Orleans lads the all-time series against the Buccaneers, 30-18. For games in Tampa, the Saints hold a 14-7 advantage. New Orleans has won eight of the nine most recent meetings. The Buccaneers have not beaten the Saints in Tampa since 2011.
New Orleans at Tampa Bay
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 11 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Saints +2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Will the Buccaneers be able to run the ball?
Tampa Bay has cobbled together a tepid rushing offense as injuries have resulted in a revolving backfield. Leading rusher Jacquizz Rodgers has totaled 422 yards in seven games. Doug Martin, who has played in just six games because of a hamstring injury, leads the way in carries (17.5 per game) and rushing touchdowns (two). Peyton Barber has played in the most games (11), but has just 50 carries. This lack of stability and production has resulted in the Bucs gaining 90 or fewer yards on the ground in seven of their 12 games. They are in the middle of the pack when it comes to rushing offense (17th) with 104.9 rushing yards per game, but have averaged just 82.4 in their five losses.
2. Can the Saints’ secondary keep Mike Evans under wraps?
Evans has clearly been Tampa Bay’s top offensive weapon this season, accounting for nearly twice as many receiving yards (1,058) and touchdowns (10) as the next player on the game, tight end Cameron Brate (528, 6). No other Buccaneer has more than 500 receiving yards or two touchdown catches. Evans recorded at least one score in eight of 12 games, and last week’s was the first in which he finished with fewer than 50 receiving yards (38 vs. San Diego).
With Evans really coming into his own in his third season, he’s yet to enjoy much success against New Orleans. In three games versus the Saints he has been limited to eight receptions for 93 yards and just one touchdown.
The Saints have been erratic when it comes to defending opposing teams’ passing attacks. They have allowed five wide receivers (Golden Tate, Quinton Patton, Dontrelle Inman, Sterling Shepard and Amari Cooper) to post 100 or more yards, and have gone 2-3 in those games. New Orleans has yielded 300 or more passing yards in six games, but also has limited two of the past three opponents to fewer than 200 yards through the air. Which trend will continue on Sunday? For the Saints it starts with continuing to keep Evans in check.
3. Kicker reliability
Roberto Aguayo has given skeptics plenty of reasons to question why Tampa Bay traded away a third- and a fourth-round pick to move up and take the Florida State All-American in the second round (59th overall) of this year’s draft. The rookie has missed seven out of 22 field goal attempts. Two of those misses were from less than 40 yards. He is just three of eight from 40 yards and out and has missed two (out of 26) extra point attempts.
For New Orleans, Wil Lutz earned the kicking job as an undrafted rookie out of Georgia State, and he has been a little more successful in his first season. He is 18-of-24 on field goal attempts with four of his misses coming from 50 yards and beyond. He has missed just one of his 40 PATs. However, that one botched attempted was blocked and returned for a game-winning defensive conversion in the Saints’ Week 10 loss at home to Denver.
It’s entirely possible that Sunday’s game could be decided on which team’s kicker either rises to the occasion when called on or fails to convert a kick in a key situation.
Tampa Bay is neck and neck with Atlanta in the NFC South. Having already split their head-to-head meetings, the next tiebreaker is divisional record. The Falcons currently have a slight lead (3-1 vs. 2-1) on the Buccaneers in that respect because they have played one more divisional game. That’s why this game is so important to Tampa Bay’s postseason plans.
As gloomy as things appears for New Orleans, currently two games behind the two leaders, the Saints still have some control over their destiny. After Sunday, these two teams will meet again in New Orleans on Christmas Eve in Week 17. A sweep by the Saints would give them the key head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bucs should the two teams finish the regular season tied.
As for this game, Tampa Bay is considered the slight favorite mainly because of home-field advantage. The Bucs are riding a four-game winning streak in which the last three have been decided by an average of six points. New Orleans has been on a roller-coaster ride since Week 4, but hit a nauseating low this past Sunday at home in a 28-13 loss to Detroit. Based on this pattern, the Saints could be due for a rebound, while Tampa bay may final lose a nail-biter.
Prediction: Saints 28, Buccaneers 27
— 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.