This year has been a reversal of previous fortunes for these two teams. Last season, the Saints were in the thick of the NFC South race to the very end, while the Buccaneers fell into possession of the first overall pick. Now, the Saints are in the race for the top draft choice next season, while the Buccaneers are knocking on the door of the wild card race. Despite running unbeaten Carolina close last week, the Saints couldn’t stop Cam Newton, much like many opponents this season. The Saints look like they are in need of a major rebuild, with or without Sean Payton and Drew Brees. Tampa Bay have improved dramatically this season, and not just because they took Jameis Winston first overall. Winston has been impressive, but the rest of the team has progressed as well. Lovie Smith’s defense is playing well, while the offensive line is meshing together and the running game is healthy. If the Vikings falter down the stretch, the Bucs are poised to raid Minnesota’s playoff spot.
Three Keys to the Game
Winston vs the Saints defense
There’s no other way to describe it; New Orleans have had one of the worst pass defenses in recent memory this season. The Saints have allowed a league high 8.7 yards per attempt and a whopping 35 touchdowns to just six interceptions. Corners Brandon Browner and Delvin Breux are the two most penalised players in the league. Jameis Winston has improved weekly and is surrounded by talent on offense. Receivers Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins will be match-up nightmares for the Saints, giving Winston three tall, physical redzone targets. Without much of a pass rush beyond Cameron Jordan, it’s hard to see how the Saints can stop Tampa Bay.
Can the Buccaneers shut down Drew Brees?
In a let-down game for Carolina’s defense, Brees played fairly well. However, that was at home in the Superdome. On the road, the Saints have struggled, winning just one game outside of Louisiana. The Buccaneers rank in the middle of the pack against the pass, but will likely have more chances to pressure Brees thanks to struggles with the Saints’ ground game.
Can New Orleans run the ball?
Physical workhorse back Mark Ingram is out with a serious shoulder injury, and could miss the rest of the season. That’s bad news for the Saints, whose running game has struggled even with Ingram in the line-up. Without their workhorse, the Saints will have to turn to Khiry Robinson and C.J. Spiller, who is more of a third down passing game weapon. Without the threat of the run, the Buccaneers will be able to concentrate on pressuring Brees. With players like Gerald McCoy in their front seven, Tampa Bay could stop whatever is left of the Saints’ run game while still having bodies to get in Brees’ face.
Match-up to watch
Stephone Anthony vs Doug Martin
Doug Martin has been a key part in Tampa Bay’s turnaround this season. He struggled with injury the last two seasons, but is just 118 yards behind Adrian Peterson in the race for the league’s rushing title. With a strong performance against the Saints, Martin could take the lead. Martin has been running hard and has been elusive as well this season, taking pressure off of Jameis Winston and giving Tampa Bay’s offense another dimension. The Saints will have to rely on linebacker Stephone Anthony to stop Martin from the middle linebacker spot, which upheaval in the defensive coaching staff will not have helped.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With a much more potent offense and a better defense, the Buccaneers should be able to make a statement in the NFC South with a win over New Orleans. Lovie Smith has the Buccaneers rolling, so don’t be surprised if this win helps get them into the playoffs.