First place in the NFC South is on the line when the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers meet for the second time this regular season, now in primetime on "Sunday Night Football." With both teams coming off narrow victories, it's setting up to be another classic in this rivalry.
The Saints' offense struggled early at Chicago last week. They scored their sole touchdown of the first half with three seconds left before the intermission. Their defense allowed the Bears to score 10 points in the final four minutes of regulation to force overtime. And they only squeaked out a win with two minutes remaining when Wil Lutz hit the game-winning field goal after both teams punted.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, survived a determined effort by the Giants in the Meadowlands on Monday. Tampa Bay trailed from late in the first quarter until late in the third — by as much as 11 points in the first half. The Bucs' largest lead stood at just eight points and only lasted for three minutes and 11 seconds. It was a disappointing show, to say the least, against a Giants team that fell to 1-7.
The Saints have dominated this rivalry historically, with an 36-21 advantage overall and 16-9 lead in games played in Tampa. New Orleans also has won the four most recent meetings, including a 34-23 win back in Week 1.
Sunday Night Football: New Orleans at Tampa Bay
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 8 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints +4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Tampa Bay protect the ball?
Turnovers made the difference in the first meeting in New Orleans in the season-opener. Tom Brady threw two interceptions. Marcus Williams picked off the first one to set up the Saints' offense for a 35-yard drive to the end zone. Janoris Jenkins returned the second one 36 yards for a touchdown. Later, Mike Edwards muffed a kickoff, which Bennie Fowler recovered at the Bucs' 18-yard line that led to a field goal. Those 17 points contributed greatly to the 11-point defeat.
Winning the turnover margin has been crucial for Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers turned over the ball less than their opponents in six out of seven games since the loss in New Orleans. The lone exception occurred in the Bucs' only other defeat, against the Chargers, when both teams gave away the ball once. After the trio of giveaways at New Orleans, the Bucs have turned over the ball only five times.
2. Can New Orleans run the ball sufficiently to maintain a balanced offense?
Saints head coach Sean Payton has shown a tendency in previous years to abandon the rushing attack as soon as the Saints fall behind an opponent or end up in a close contest. However, in this season, he has avoided that habit for the most part. New Orleans has averaged 119.3 rushing yards per game and exceeded 90 yards in six out of seven contests. Alvin Kamara leads the team with 87 carries for 431 yards and four touchdowns. Latavius Murray is a capable second fiddle with 71 carries for 282 yards and two touchdowns. Among Taysom Hill's various contributions are 19 rushes for 87 yards and a touchdown.
However, the Buccaneers limited the Saints to 82 yards on the ground in their previous meeting. That is the Saints' lowest total so far in 2020. Murray led the Saints with 15 attempts for 48 yards. Kamara carried the ball 12 times for only 16 yards, although he did run for a touchdown. Hill had the highest average per carry at 4.3, but he only toted the ball three times.
The Buccaneers have suppressed opponents' running attacks. They have allowed the fewest yards per game (70.4) in the NFL. They have held three opponents to fewer than 50 rushing yards. Last week, the Giants gained 101 yards on the ground, the first opponent to surpass the 100-yard mark this season.
3. Will Tom Bradycarve upthe vulnerable Saints' secondary?
Brady did not turn in his most successful effort this season at New Orleans in September. He connected on 23-of-36 passes for 239 yards, his third-lowest completion percentage and yardage total of the season. His two interceptions in that contest equal the number of picks he's thrown the rest of the season. He was sacked three times but sacked only seven times in the next seven contests.
Since the mediocre performance in New Orleans, Brady has jelled with his new teammates. In the past two weeks, he has completed more than 70 percent of his passes. He did not throw an interception in the four previous games and averaged three touchdown passes in the three most recent contests.
The Saints' defensive backs have given up big plays and scores during the season. They have surrendered 237.9 yards through the air, 16th-highest in the league. They have allowed 28.1 points per game on average, tenth most in the NFL. The secondary has also been burned for two passing touchdowns of over 60 yards.
This is the type of game that rightfully belongs in the primetime slot where it is scheduled. The importance of the outcome cannot be underestimated. With a victory, the Bucs would remain in first place and ahead of the Saints. If the Saints win, they would secure the tie-breaker for the divisional championship should they finish with the same overall record as Tampa Bay. This matchup projects as an entertaining battle with two future Hall of Fame inductees directing the offenses.
Prediction: Buccaneers 38, Saints 31
— 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.