The old saying goes that it's hard to beat a team three times in one season. After sweeping the season series — winning by a combined 72-26 — the New Orleans Saints will try to do just that when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday with a ticket to the NFC Championship Game on the line.
However, football history shows that that cliche is more fiction than fact. Of the 21 previous times that a team beat a division rival twice in the regular season and faced them again in the playoffs, they won the third game 14 times. Including the most recent instance, when the very same Saints knocked off the Panthers in 2018.
Both teams took care of business as heavy favorites in the Wild Card round, although the Buccaneers had a narrow lead over Washington for most of their road contest. They wound up exceeding expectations by covering the spread but only had a two-score lead for a little over 14 minutes of the game. Still, they outgained the team without a nickname by more than 125 yards and, in the process, secured their first postseason victory since winning the Super Bowl at the end of the 2002 season.
The Saints, meanwhile, struggled with the Bears during the first half, with three punts, a missed field goal, and a Taysom Hill fumble. But after the intermission, New Orleans was able to monopolize the ball. Their first two possessions of the second half each lasted more than seven minutes and resulted in touchdowns. The third one, over five minutes long, fell less than a yard short of the endzone.
This matchup marks the first time that the Buccaneers and Saints will meet in the postseason. The Saints lead the overall series, 37-21, including a 20-11 advantage at home. New Orleans has won the five most recent meetings, including both during the regular season.
NFC Divisional Round: Tampa Bay at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 17 at 6:40 p.m.
Spread: Saints -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Brady overcome his difficulties against the Saints' defense?
Brady has enjoyed tremendous success in his first NFL season outside of New England. He finished the regular season tied for second in the NFL for passing touchdowns (40). He compiled the third-highest total of passing yards with 4,633. His 401 completions were the second-highest total in the league. Most crucially, he guided his new team to the playoffs. Meanwhile, his former team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and suffered a losing season for the first time since 2000.
However, Brady struggled in both of his matchups with New Orleans. His passer rating fell below 80 in only three contests during this season, with two of those coming against the Saints. He has thrown just 12 interceptions this season, yet New Orleans accounted for five of those. Opponents sacked him 21 times, but the Saints did so three times in each of the two previous meetings in 2020.
The Saints' defense has maintained a high level of toughness against passing attacks throughout this season. No opponent has exceeded 300 yards through the air since Week 14 of the 2019 season. During this season, opponents have averaged just 215.5 passing yards against New Orleans. They finished eighth in the regular season with 45 sacks, although they only added one more against the Bears.
2. Will the Buccaneers find some balance on offense?
Brady's troubles against New Orleans can be attributed in part to Tampa Bay's meager running game. In the season-opener in New Orleans, running backs Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette together had 22 carries for 71 yards and no touchdowns. During the rematch in Tampa, that duo combined for just four rushing attempts for nine yards and no scores.
The inability to establish a semblance of a threat to run the ball has plagued Tampa Bay. The Bucs finished the regular season ranked 28th in the NFL at 94.9 rushing yards per game. Their 369 rushing attempts were the league's fourth-lowest total. Their 82 first downs gained by rushing were the third-fewest. They failed to gain at 90 yards on the ground in eight regular-season games, losing half of those. They must show some willingness to run the ball to slow down the Saints' relentless pressure on Brady.
3. Can the Saints' passing attack reach its combined potential?
The Saints' victory in the Wild Card Round served as a reunion of the stars among New Orleans' offense. That game marked the first time that Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas all played together for an entire game since Week 9. Coincidentally, that contest ended in the Saints' 38-3 demolition of the Buccaneers in Tampa.
Brees enjoyed his most successful game of this season in that matchup at Tampa Bay. His quarterback rating reached 135.2, his highest score since Week 15 of the 2019 season. That score included completing 26 of 32 passes for 222 yards. He threw four touchdown passes, the most that he has thrown in any game of this season. That outing was more impressive than what he accomplished in the first matchup with the Bucs: 18 completions on 30 attempts for 160 yards and two touchdowns.
Kamara triumphantly returned to the lineup after missing the regular-season finale. Against the Bears, he compiled his second-highest rushing yardage total (99) on his highest workload in a game (23 carries) this season. In the season opener against the Buccaneers, he struggled for 16 yards on 12 carries, yet he ran for a touchdown in addition to five receptions for 51 yards and a touchdown. At Tampa Bay, he caught five passes for only nine yards but accounted for 40 yards and a touchdown on nine rushing attempts.
In the Wild Card Round, Thomas saw his first on-field action since Week 14. He also reached the end zone for the first time this season. Although he only caught five passes, he averaged 14.6 yards per reception. That was the best mark since he posted 16.5 yards per grab (on 11 total catches) against the Buccaneers in the fifth game of the 2019 season. Earlier this campaign, Thomas hauled in three passes for 17 yards in the Superdome. At Tampa Bay in November, he contributed five receptions for 51 yards.
Brees and Brady will face each other for a third time this season. The squads of these two future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks have met seven times in the pros before, and Brees has emerged victorious in four of those. Contests against each other began back in 1999, as both led members of the Big Ten. Brady won the sole meeting as collegiate players. Who will win this meeting to take the lead in their personal series and guide his team to the NFC Championship Game?
Prediction: Saints 35, 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.