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Sunday Night Football: New Orleans Saints vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Prediction and Preview

Sunday Night Football: New Orleans Saints vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Prediction and Preview

The Buccaneers can clinch the NFC South with a win against the Saints

The Buccaneers have a chance to clinch the NFC South on "Sunday Night Football," but they'll have to do something they have yet to do since Tom Brady came to town: beat the Saints in the regular season.

Tampa Bay may have beaten the Saints in the playoffs last season en route to winning the Super Bowl, but New Orleans has won all three regular-season matchups by a combined 55 points.

Perhaps this game is coming at the right time for the Saints, who last week won their first game since upsetting the Buccaneers on Halloween. Taysom Hill, despite his injured finger, and Alvin Kamara, back after missing the four previous games, trampled the Jets. They combined for 38 carries, 193 yards, and three touchdowns.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay appeared to be cruising with an easy victory by halftime at home against the Bills, leading 24-3. Buffalo responded by scoring the same margin in the second half. In overtime, the Buccaneers forced the Bills to punt then Tom Brady completed a 58-yard pass to Breshad Perriman for the game-clenching score.

The Saints lead the series with the Buccaneers, 38-22, and they even hold a 17-9 edge in Tampa Bay. New Orleans' recent dominant stretches even beyond Brady's entrance into this rivalry, as it has won six of the last seven meetings. However, they'll have to play on Sunday night without head coach Sean Payton, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday.

Sunday Night Football: New Orleans (6-7) at Tampa Bay (10-3)

Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 19 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
Spread: Buccaneers -11

Three Things to Watch

1. The turnover margin
The Saints' record has depended noticeably on how much they have protected the ball and taken it away from opponents. They have lost four of the five contests in which they committed more turnovers than their foes.

A depleted team like New Orleans must win the turnover margin in order to defeat a more talented squad like Tampa Bay. When the Saints have won the turnover differential by two or more, they have succeeded against three current divisional leaders. Those results include taking the ball away three times without giving it away against the Packers, Patriots, and Buccaneers.

The turnover margin also factored into last season's matchup between Tampa Bay and New Orleans. The Buccaneers gave away the ball three times in both regular-season contests, leading to Saints victories. Meanwhile, the Saints committed no turnovers in the first meeting and only two in the second. However, in their playoff matchup, the Saints turned over the ball four times while the Bucs never did, leading to Tampa Bay's victory.

2. Alvin Kamara vs. Buccaneers' rushing defenseKamara returned to New Orleans' starting lineup against the Jets, and he immediately demonstrated how much he was missed. His 27 carries for 120 yards exceeded the combined total for the rest of team in both categories. That output equaled his highest single-game rushing total this season, and he led the team in receptions.

Kamara has been driving the Saints' offense this season. He has accounted for 650 yards on the ground, more than twice anyone else on the roster, and four touchdowns. He has also caught the most passes (36), is third in receiving yards (335), and is second on the team in touchdown catches. Those are remarkable statistics considering he has missed four games.

The Buccaneers will serve as stiffer obstacles for Kamara than the Jets. Tampa Bay's rushing defense ranks third in the NFL at 91.2 yards per game, and they've given up the fifth-fewest touchdowns (nine) on the ground. Kamara turned in a subpar performance against the Bucs in late October: 19 rushes for 61 yards and three receptions for 15 yards.

3. Saints' front seven vs. Buccaneers' offensive lineOpponents have sacked Brady only 16 times this season, and his 2.8 percent sack rate matches the lowest of his career from the 2009 season. Both marks are the best in the NFL this season, a real tip of the cap to Tampa Bay's offensive line.

The Saints' defense has not consistently dominated opposing offensive lines or pressured quarterbacks. They have sacked quarterbacks during 5.9 percent of passing attempts, tied for 19th place in the NFL. Their 29 sacks are tied for 18th place in the league. They have 126 quarterback pressures, tied for 17th. They must boost those numbers against Tampa Bay in order to have any shot at victory. 

How many of the Saints' defenders will be able to play? Linebackers Pete Werner (elbow) and Kaden Elliss (hamstring) plus defensive lineman Marcus Davenport (shoulder) are listed as questionable heading into this game. Reportedly, defensive end Cameron Jordan and defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson will be able to return to the lineup after missing last week's game.

Final Analysis

This contest will mark the end of the Saints' contention for the NFC South title or the continuation of the Saints' improbable quest to win the division. New Orleans must win this matchup and the three that follow it in addition to Tampa Bay dropping its last three games. Otherwise, the Saints, one of five 6-7 NFC teams, will likely have to sweep the remaining matchups and hope that the tiebreakers for a wild card fall their way.

Tampa Bay needs to win this game not just to secure the divisional title. The Buccaneers are tied with Arizona for the top seed in the NFC Playoffs. The Bucs need a victory in order to keep pace with the Cardinals.

If the Saints can pressure Brady and his crew into turnovers multiple times while not giving away the ball, the Saints might have a chance of duplicating the upset on Halloween. Otherwise, the Buccaneers will experience smooth sailing to their first divisional title since 2007.

Prediction: Buccaneers 34, Saints 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.