New Orleans controls its own destiny in Sunday afternoon's regular-season finale against Tampa Bay. Beat the Buccaneers on the road and the Saints are NFC South champions and will host Wild Card Weekend. A loss, and New Orleans will need Atlanta to beat Carolina or else the Saints will be the road team next weekend.
Speaking of the Falcons, the Saints exacted their revenge on their division rivals last week in the Superdome. Although two turnovers gave Atlanta opportunities in New Orleans’ territory, the Saints’ defense held, giving up just one field on the two possessions.
Meanwhile the Buccaneers showed a ton of grit and determination at Carolina last week. Playing for nothing more than pride and a sense of professionalism, they nearly stole the last bit of hope for the Panthers to win the NFC South. Alas, as occurred in the previous week, Tampa Bay lost in the last minute of regulation, extending their current losing streak to five in a row.
New Orleans is going for its first season sweep of Tampa Bay since 2014. The Saints won the first meeting 30-10 back in Week 9 behind a near-perfect performance from Drew Brees (22-of-27, 263 yards, 2 TDs).
New Orleans at Tampa Bay
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 31 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Saints -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Will the Saints’ "Boom and Zoom" offensive scheme start rolling again?
New Orleans has been held under 100 rushing yards in two of its last three games, both versus Atlanta. That shortcoming could be due to a stout Falcons’ defense. However, the lack of yards on the ground reasonably serves as a reason for concern for the Saints. They have lost three of the five games this season in which they have finished with less than 100 rushing yards.
The good news is that the running game generated 151 yards on the ground against Tampa Bay in the teams' first meeting back on Nov. 5. Secondly, the Buccaneers have allowed an average of 143.2 rushing yards in their past five games. Therefore, Mark “Boom” Ingram (right) and Alvin “Zoom” Kamara should have plenty of opportunities to get back on track heading into the playoffs.
2. How many, if any, Buccaneers care about Mike Evans’ shot at a record?
Despite a bleak season for Tampa Bay, one of its players can accomplish a feat only done twice in NFL history. With 54 receiving yards, Evans (above, right) would have accumulated 1,000 or more in his first four seasons. Only Randy Moss and A.J. Green have managed to do that.
The odds seem in Evans’ favor. In the 14 games in which has appeared this season, he has posted 54 or more 10 times. However, in the game at New Orleans earlier this season, he only caught one pass for 13 yards. Will head coach Dirk Koetter and quarterback Jameis Winston target him enough times to ensure that he can achieve this mark?
3. Motivation for both teams
For the Saints, their reasons for competing and winning are clear. With a victory, they will clinch the NFC South title and a home game in the first round of the playoffs that accompanies that. If they lose, they must hope for the Falcons to defeat Carolina in order to win the division.
Despite already being eliminated from playoff contention, the Buccaneers have fought, literally and figuratively, during the previous two weeks. They competed down to the final minute against their other two NFC South rivals before falling in defeat. Their fans surely are wondering how successful their season might have turned out with such intense levels of play over the course of the year.
Given the stakes of the outcome, one must ask: do the Buccaneers have anything left in the tank? They have nothing to gain in yet another divisional game other than ruining a rival’s postseason plans. Now that the NFL has pushed the start time back a few hours, will the Bucs have already started looking forward to ringing in 2018 before kickoff? How many will have sudden and mysterious “injuries” on game day preventing them from playing?
The Saints have what every NFL team would like to hold in their hands heading into the regular season finale: the lead of their division. They can wrap up the NFC South crown with a win without needing help from any other team.
Viewers might be confused about who is the home team for this game. A sizeable crowd of fans from Louisiana is expected to invade Florida for this holiday weekend. They are headed to Tampa in hopes of celebrating the Saints’ first division title since 2011. Then, they will venture up the road to Orlando to watch LSU play in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. Hearing more cheers for the opponents than boos will add to the Bucs’ misery.
Prediction: Saints 34, 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.