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By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - There a lot of moving parts to discuss when talking about the New Orleans Saints and Week 17 of the NFL season.
The most pressing issue, however, is the playoffs and the Saints' route to them is rather simple -- beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday and they're in.
New Orleans lost control of the NFC South a week ago, however, and put its postseason life in peril by losing a 17-13 heartbreaker to Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
Newton shook off a second-half slump to lead a late touchdown drive, capped by a 14-yard pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left to play that secured a playoff berth for the Panthers and vaulted them atop the Saints in the NFC South.
With its 10th win in 11 outings, Carolina (11-4) moved a game ahead of NOLA. The Panthers, who are in the postseason for the first time since 2008, will wrap up the division and an opening-round bye by winning at Atlanta next week.
Drew Brees was picked off twice and sacked six times by Carolina but finished 30-of-44 for 281 yards, along with a 5-yard touchdown strike to Jimmy Graham which gave New Orleans a short-lived 13-10 lead with 6:37 remaining.
Despite the setback, the Saints still control their own destiny in the NFC wild-card race and can also still capture the South if the Panthers lose to the Falcons and New Orleans tops the Bucs.
Conversely the Saints could find themselves on the outside of the postseason picture, looking in if they lose to Tampa Bay and Arizona tops San Francisco in Week 17.
"It's all out there in front of us," said Brees. "Obviously, we need some help in order to win the division and be the two-seed, but the fact of the matter is all we can worry about is what is ahead of us."
The Bucs will be finishing out a disappointing season which saw them get off to a dismal 0-8 start before rebounding to win four of five and then dropping the past two, including last Sunday's 23-13 setback to the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome.
Rookie signal caller Mike Glennon threw for 158 yards on 16-of-26 passing against the Rams while Vincent Jackson hauled in five passes for 98 yards. Bobby Rainey rushed for 37 yards on 20 carries and had the lone Tampa Bay touchdown.
"Offensively we need to play better and execute better," said Glennon. "It came down to execution and we need to do our part, flat out play better."
New Orleans leads its all-time series with Tampa Bay 26-17 and has won four straight meetings, including a 16-14 win in Central Florida back on Sept. 15, one of the Saints' three road wins on the year. Glennon, however, had not taken over the Bucs at that point.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Saints are not exactly heating up at the right time, losing back-to-back games for the first time this season. Of course both of those setbacks have been away from the Mercedez-Benz Superdome where New Orleans is 7-0 on the season and averages 32.9 points per game.
Part of the problem recently has been the inability to take care of the football, something that can be traced back to poor pass protection around Brees, who needs 219 passing yards to reach 5,000 for a third straight season. Brees is one of just five NFL signal callers to throw for 5,000 previously and already has three of the seven 5,000-yard seasons in league history.
New Orleans has turned the ball over five times during its two-game skid and has a minus-4 turnover differential in those contests. Four of those five giveaways have been Brees' interceptions and he has been sacked 10 times in the two games, including a season-worst six times against the Panthers.
"Some of those were on me not getting the ball out," said Brees.
The blame can be debated but what can't is the fact that the Saints' offense has been uncharacteristically pedestrian recently, averaging just under 17 points a game over the last five, four of which came away from the cozy confines of the Bayou.
"We feel (being at home) is a big advantage for us, just like it is for a team when we play on the road," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "I think that finishing up the regular season with a (late afternoon) start time is a big plus for us. It is up to us to take advantage of it."
The Bucs don't figure to be able to keep up with New Orleans offensively. Tampa Bay has averaged 15.0 ppg over their last four games (1-3) and Glennon seems to have taken a step back. The rookie is passing for just 151.8 yards per contest over that same four-game span.
"I think a big part of the game is to keep that offense off the field," Glennon said. "We want to control the ball as long as we can because that's such a powerful offense and they're one of the best offenses in the league."
The Tampa Bay offense could get a bit of a break with the absence of impressive Saints rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, who went on injured reserve with a broken left ankle.
Embattled Bucs coach Greg Schiano also needs to end the season on a positive note if he hopes to get a third year in Tampa.
"You're 4-11, and you know what, that last game sticks with you," Schiano said. "You have to live with that taste the entire offseason. Our guys need to play."
The Saints are a completely different team on the fast track in the dome and the Bucs just don't have the weapons to keep up in a high-scoring affair. Figure Brees to cruise past 5,000 and New Orleans to earn a playoff berth.
"We're approaching this like a playoff game," Payton said. "The key for us is to handle the holiday week, with Christmas being on a Wednesday, put together a good plan and a good set of practices and put our focus into playing our best football Sunday."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 34, Buccaneers 17
12/27 10:06:16 ET
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