Streaking NFC South teams are set to meet on Sunday when Tampa Bay pays New Orleans a visit. The Buccaneers are going in the wrong direction, losers of four straight after falling 17-3 at home to the Panthers. The offense continued its inconsistent ways, mustering a field goal and two fourth-quarter interceptions thrown by Jameis Winston killed any chances of mounting a late comeback.
Meanwhile, Sean Payton's Saints extended their winning streak to five with a 20-12 victory over the Bears. New Orleans didn’t light up the scoreboard, but the defense more than held its own and even withstood a pair of fourth-quarter fumbles by Mark Ingram.
The Saints hold a comfortable 31-19 advantage in the head-to-head series with the Buccaneers. The NFC South rivals have split their two meetings each of the past two seasons.
Tampa Bay at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 5 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Saints -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Injuries on Saints’ offensive line
One of the keys for the Saints’ five-game winning streak has been the increased production of the rushing attack. That has given the offense much needed balance. They have gained more than 100 rushing yards in four of their five wins while exceeding 200 passing yards in four of their five victories. Continuity of the offensive line counts heavily in maintaining that success.
The Saints may have to play without a few of their starting offensive linemen. Larry Warford has an abdominal strain that will likely keep him out of the game. Two tackles, Terron Armstead and Andrus Peat, missed some practice time during this week. The Saints already have two other tackles, Martin Wallace and Zach Strief, on injured reserve who cannot be activated for this game.
Will rookie Ryan Ramczyk demonstrate why the Saints chose him in the first round of this year’s draft by becoming a stalwart along the line? Can the Saints’ reserve linemen step into the breech and keep up the level of protection?
2. Injuries among Buccaneers’ skill position players
Jameis Winston suffered a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder in the game at Arizona. That has meant very limited practice for him before the last two games, both losses. This week, he participated in mid-week physical preparation. Has the injury truly healed enough to allow him a full allotment of reps with the first-team offense? Perhaps, did his sub-200 yard passing effort last Sunday force him into the practice sessions sooner than he should have been? Another Bucs’ quarterback, Ryan Griffin, is already on the injured reserve list for the same type of issue.
Wide receiver Adam Humphries will be hobbled, if he plays at all, due to injured ribs. This would be the first game of the season in which has not played. He has the fourth highest total for receiving yards and third most receptions. Backing up Humphries is rookie Chris Godwin, who has caught a total of seven passes for 74 yards so far.
3. Can the Saints handle prosperity?
New Orleans climbed above .500 in Week 6 for the first time since the end of the 2013 season. The Saints have spent the past two weeks in first place of the division. They are riding their longest winning streak since that same year. A large portion of those currently on the roster had not previously experienced such success during their time in New Orleans.
Was the lackluster win at home over the Bears as sign of growing complacency? The Saints scored only two field goals in the second half and committed the same number of fumbles in the fourth quarter. Their defense held off the mediocre Bears’ offense to escape with a victory.
Three weeks ago, the Saints coasted during the second half at home versus the Lions. After taking a 21-point lead into halftime, they allowed Detroit to score four touchdowns, narrowing the lead to only seven midway through the fourth quarter.
Might another second half filled with turnovers, complacent defense and unproductive offense cost the Saints and let a presumed victory turn into a bitter defeat?
The season is slipping away from the Buccaneers, having lost five of their first seven games, including one within the NFC South. A wild card berth seems farfetched at this point a divisional championship less so. A plausible scenario for Tampa Bay is going on a multi-game winning streak then hope that all the tiebreakers go their way. That fantastical possibility would have to start with a victory in New Orleans.
As the NFL is at its halfway point, the Saints sit alone atop the NFC South. However, they lead the Falcons by only one game and the Panthers by less than that. They must win this game in case their narrow advantage disappears. Another win within the NFC South would bolster their chances of claiming the divisional crown.
Prediction: Saints 34, Buccaneers 16
— 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.