Despite New Orleans’ victory in Arizona last Sunday, Atlanta’s victory over San Francisco ended the Saints hopes of winning the NFC South. They still have a mathematical shot a wild card, but need to win their final two games and hope the Redskins, Packers and Buccaneers all lose in Weeks 16 and 17.
Speaking of Tampa Bay, Sunday night’s 26-20 loss in Dallas ended the Bucs’ five-game winning streak. More importantly, it dropped them a game behind Atlanta for first place in the NFC South. Tampa Bay can still clinch a playoff spot with a win over New Orleans on Saturday... and quite a bit of help. Green Bay, Detroit and Washington all have to lose, so the more probable scenario has the Bucs taking care of business against the Saints and hoping that the Falcons fall at Carolina to set up a win-and-you’re-in scenario in Week 17.
New Orleans leads the all-time series against Tampa Bay 30-19, including eight of the last 10 meetings. The Buccaneers beat the Saints 16-11 at home two weeks ago and also were victorious in New Orleans last season. The Bucs have not beaten the Saints in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in consecutive seasons since 2009-10 and are looking for the first season sweep of their division rivals since ’07.
Tampa Bay at New Orleans
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 24 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Buccaneers -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Holding the line on third and fourth downs and holding off the flags
Tampa Bay’s defense has given opponents too many free yards while allowing multiple first downs at crunch time. The Buccaneers are tied for second in the NFL in penalties (110) and are fourth in penalty yards (957). They are middle of the pack when it comes to first downs allowed (283, 17th), thanks to the second-best third down conversion rate (34.5 percent), but teams have been successful on six of eight fourth down attempts.
The Saints have earned their status as one of the top offenses in the league, leading the league in first downs with 344 and only 22 of those are due to penalties. New Orleans have converted nearly half of its third downs (49.5 percent, first) and have been quite successful on fourth down (10-for-12) as well. The downside is that the Saints’ offense has penalized quite a bit (94 for 840 yards).
These statistics aside, New Orleans’ offense struggled mightily against Tampa Bay to weeks ago. The Saints were just four of 13 on third down, and two of those were courtesy of penalties. For the game, New Orleans was hit with 13 accepted penalties for 104 yards, seven of those by the offense. Have the Buccaneers solved Drew Brees and company or will the Saints rediscover their offensive groove inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome?
2. What has happened to Mike Evans?
In the past three weeks, Evans has hardly been a factor. Opponents have held him to four receptions or fewer and less than 60 receiving yards in each game with no touchdowns. Despite the recent struggles, he is still Tampa Bay’s leading receiver by far with nearly the same amount of yards (1,159) as the next two (Cameron Brate and Adam Humphries) on the Buccaneers’ stat sheet combined (1,164). Evans also has accounted for 10 of Jameis Winston’s 26 touchdown passes this season.
Tampa Bay has won two of the three games during Evans’ slump, but the offense needs their best weapon to start producing again. In three of Bucs’ six losses he has been held to 60 receiving yards or fewer and has just three touchdowns in those games combined. Tampa Bay’s defense has done its part during the team’s recent surge, but for this team to reach its full potential it needs Evans to produce and come up with big plays.
3. Motivation for the Saints?
This contest will kick off in the late afternoon on Christmas Eve. New Orleans is all but officially eliminated from playoff contention and could be so before this game even gets started.
How many Saints fans will not show up in favor of holiday gatherings with family or friends? The game will not be blacked out locally. Therefore, diehard members of the Who Dat Nation could still watch the game without venturing to the Superdome.
One has to wonder about the mindset of the Saints on game day. How many will become last-second pre-game scratches from the starting lineup? How many players will take a seat on the bench in favor of their backups, either by request of the starter or because the coach wants to see a reserve in action? Depending on how some of the earlier games play out, fans should expect to see such substitutions.
In the recent weeks, rumors have swirled and incidents have occurred calling into question the cohesion of the team. Some in the media have reported negotiations involving a trade of head coach Sean Payton, to Los Angeles in particular. A few weeks ago, Brandin Cooks openly expressed his discontent in his lack of involvement in the game plan, prompting discussions that he wants out of New Orleans. Last week, Mark Ingram had an angry confrontation with Payton on the sideline late in the win at Arizona. If the playoffs are out of the question, will these and other issues boil over in a meaningless game?
The Saints’ chances to reach the playoffs this season greatly resemble the possibility of snow on Christmas in New Orleans. While both are theoretically possible, anyone betting on either is wasting money. Their last gasp in the pursuit of the playoffs may already be snuffed out by kickoff of this game. A victory by either Washington or Green Bay in the early games would officially end New Orleans’ postseason hopes. It seems likely that attendance in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will be sparse. The crowd will be prone to bailing early should Tampa Bay jump out to a large early lead.
On the other side, the Buccaneers have plenty of play for. A loss would cripple their shot at an NFC South championship, as the Atlanta would be able to seal up the crown with a win in Carolina. As much as the Bucs might hate the idea of arriving home late on Christmas Eve, they must take care of business on the road.
Prediction: Buccaneers 30, Saints 20
— 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.