NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (2-12) at New Orleans (13-1)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The pursuit of perfection is over for the New Orleans Saints, so does that mean all hope for a dream season is lost too? Well, not exactly, because a win this Sunday over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Superdome would lock up home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
New Orleans has already won the NFC South division and secured a first-round bye, and can also make the Big Easy home for the entire conference tournament with a Minnesota loss to Chicago on Monday night. There's no doubt the Saints' first loss of the season rang through the bayou, but this a community in which perseverance and patience has paid immense dividends in times of struggle. If the Saints' faithful followers can pull through the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina a few years ago, one loss isn't going to keep the fans or players from being focus the quest for the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance.
After last week's comeback against the visiting Dallas Cowboys fell short and New Orleans lost by a 24-17 margin, Saints quarterback and MVP candidate Drew Brees noted how the defeat was going to sting for a while, but that it's all about the next game. That next game for the top-rated team in the NFC will take place at the Superdome, where the hostile crowd will be out in full force with a chance to help make Louisiana the path towards the Super Bowl.
The dream of 19-0 is no more for New Orleans, which had a franchise winning streak of 13 straight games come to an end with the Dallas loss. Brees and company still understand what's on the horizon, and that there's a lot of aspects that need improvement in order to fulfill those aspirations. The Saints will wrap up the regular-season schedule January 3 at Carolina.
Tampa Bay hasn't thought about the Super Bowl since winning it in the 2002 season. The team did improved to 2-16 in its last 18 tries with this past Sunday's 24-7 victory at Seattle, as first-year head coach Raheem Morris tallied his second win at the helm. Morris and the Bucs won on the West Coast for the first time since beating the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII on January 26, 2003 in San Diego.
The lowly Buccaneers ended a five-game losing streak with the win over the Seahawks, in which rookie quarterback Josh Freeman passed for 205 yards with a pair of touchdown strikes and an interception. Tight end Kellen Winslow has been Freeman's favorite target and it showed this past weekend, as he recorded 93 yards on six catches.
Freeman has been picked off nine times with just two touchdown passes in his last three games, and this week's matchup in the Big Easy against a tough New Orleans defense won't make the rookie's life any easier. However, things could still go in Tampa's favor this week, which could put the Saints' home-field advantage plans on ice until the final week of the regular season.
Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olson has been under fire for obvious reasons, but temporarily redeemed himself with his solid game plan in Seattle, known for being one of the most difficult places to play no matter how poorly the Seahawks are doing. Tampa Bay didn't let that the crowd get to it last Sunday, and now has to do it in consecutive weeks at the Superdome. The chances of that happening may be slim-to-none, even though stranger things have occurred.
Morris' squad will close out the season at home versus Atlanta on January 3.
New Orleans has a 21-14 lead in its all-time series with Tampa Bay, and was a 38-7 road winner when the teams met in Week 11. The NFC South rivals embarked on a conventional split of last year's home-and-home, with the Saints recording a 24-20 victory when the teams met at the Superdome in Week 1, and the Bucs returning the favor with a 23-20 triumph at Raymond James Stadium in Week 13. Tampa Bay last won in New Orleans in 2007. The Saints will be going for their first home-and-home sweep of the Bucs since 2006.
Saints head coach Sean Payton is 4-3 against the Buccaneers in his career, while Morris is 0-1 against both Payton and the Saints as a head coach.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
If Freeman can keep the ball out of the opposition's hands on a regular basis, this franchise will be headed in the direction it once was. Freeman (1,412 passing yards, 9 TD, 14 INT) lost one of his targets to injury in last week's win, as wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (31 receptions, TD) is done for the season with a foot ailment. Stroughter and the also-injured Clifton Smith were the top return men on the team, forcing the Bucs to bring back wide receiver Micheal Spurlock this week to resume special teams duties. Winslow (68 receptions, 5 TD), meanwhile, is the club's top receiver even though he owns just one touchdown reception in his last nine games. He has been Freeman's safety valve and has recorded a team-best 752 receiving yards in 2009. Wide receiver Antonio Bryant (32 receptions, 3 TD) and running back Cadillac Williams both sit second on the team with three touchdown catches apiece. Wideout Michael Clayton (14 receptions, 1TD) is questionable for Sunday with a knee injury. He has just one catch in each of his last four games played for a Tampa Bay offense rated 25th in passing this season (181.7 ypg) and 29th in total yards (282.5 ypg).
The Saints have often been bailed out defensively because their offense averages an NFL-best 34.5 points per game. That's why they are only 25th in pass defense and can be beaten by a team with a good offense. The Cowboys' Tony Romo burned the Saints for 312 yards and a touchdown last week, while the New Orleans secondary couldn't keep up with wide receiver Miles Austin, who ended with 139 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions. Cornerbacks Randall Gay (30 tackles, 1 INT) and Malcolm Jenkins (45 tackles, 1 INT) have to step up their game against the Bucs after appearing out of sync last week. Safeties Roman Harper (94 tackles) and Darren Sharper (64 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 8 INT) combined for 16 stops in the last game. Tampa Bay's only threat deep is Bryant, who hasn't been himself this season due to a knee problem. Gay is listed as questionable for Sunday's test with a head injury.
Williams (652 rushing yards, 3 TD) hasn't scored a rushing touchdown in five straight games, but has two receiving scores in his last four contests. The dual threat has carried the football 10 or more times in all but two games this season and is coming off a 12-carry, 66-yard performance in Seattle. Williams was the main reason why Freeman settled down later on in the win over the Seahawks, using his ability to cut back and keep drives alive. Freeman had only five completions in 12 attempts for 61 yards and one interception in the first half of Sunday's win. Running back Derrick Ward (377 rushing yards, 1 TD) added to the cause last week with a season-high 67 yards on 19 touches. Ward, who hasn't scored a rushing touchdown since a Week 1 loss versus Dallas, had a six-yard touchdown catch to keep the Seahawks at bay. The Buccaneers are just 23rd in rushing this season, posting 100.8 yards per game on the ground.
Last week, New Orleans allowed a score on the first possession of the game for the seventh time in the past eight weeks. Marion Barber was able to give Dallas a comfortable lead with a pair of touchdown runs, while teammate Felix Jones added 58 yards on 14 carries. Hopefully for the Saints, tackle Sedrick Ellis (28 tackles, 2 sacks) can make a healthy return after missing the Dallas game with a knee ailment. He and Remi Ayodele (26 tackles, 1.5 sacks) hope to provide pressure up front on Freeman and clog the running lanes for Williams. Much like the Bucs, New Orleans has a decent set of linebackers, with middle man Jonathan Vilma (104 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 INT) leading the way in stops. Vilma is coming off a 14-tackle, one-sack performance versus the Cowboys. Outside starters Scott Shanle (69 tackles, 2 INT) and Scott Fujita (48 tackles, 1 sack) also combined for 16 tackles last week. Defensive end Will Smith (41 tackles, 12 sacks, 1 INT) owns 9 1/2 sacks in his last eight games.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Brees (4,130 passing yards, 33 TD, 11 INT) completed 29-of-45 passes for 298 yards with a touchdown pass, an interception and a passer rating of 81.5 in the loss to the Cowboys. He had to work from a big deficit with the New Orleans defense playing poorly for most of the game. Even though he lost, Brees eclipsed the 4,000-yard passing mark for the season and became only the second quarterback in NFL history with four consecutive 4,000 yard campaigns. Indianapolis All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning threw for over 4,000 yards for six straight seasons from 1999-2004 and has done so for four straight years from 2006-09. Brees, who is the team's all-time record holder for touchdown passes, owns 201 scoring strikes in his career. He is currently first in the NFL passer rating (109.4) and completion percentage (69.4) and is tied with Manning for first with 33 touchdown passes. Brees is also third in total passing yards (4,130) for the Saints, who ended just 1-for-7 on third downs versus Dallas and were held scoreless for the game's first 22 minutes and 37 seconds of the game. Wide receiver Marques Colston (61 receptions, 994 yards, 9 TD) is on the verge of his first 1,000-yard campaign since 2007, while Devery Henderson (45 receptions, 2 TD) and Robert Meachem (38 receptions, 8 TD) have provided Brees with more weapons.
The Bucs will be walking into a buzzsaw when they play defense for the first time on Sunday, although they're eighth against the pass this season. It's no secret that New Orleans has a pass-happy mentality, with Brees and a bevy of receivers capable of lighting up the scoreboard. Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is no Brees, though, and was intercepted four times by Tampa Bay last week. Hasselbeck did manage to throw one touchdown pass, along with two interceptions to Bucs corner Elbert Mack (23 tackles, 3 INT). Linebacker Geno Hayes (76 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and safety Tanard Jackson (61 tackles, 4 INT) had the other picks for Tampa Bay. Jackson, though, is questionable for Sunday's game with a knee problem. Cornerback Aqib Talib (51 tackles, 5 INT) leads the Tampa Bay defense with five picks this season and finished for the team lead in tackles against Seattle with eight. It seems Talib will be doing the same thing again, with the likes of Colston, Henderson and Meachem chasing down passes from Brees. Veteran cornerback Ronde Barber (66 tackles, 2 sacks) and safety Sabby Piscitelli (69 tackles, 1 INT) will also have to do some extra stretching prior to Sunday's aerial display.
New Orleans is fifth in the NFL rushing this season, even though it has been airing it out on a regular basis. That's another reason why the Saints are first in total yards (419.6) and points per game (34.5). Top rusher Pierre Thomas (733 rushing yards, 5 TD) hasn't scored a rushing touchdown in six straight games and posted just 20 yards on six touches versus the Cowboys. He added five receptions for 50 yards in the loss, his third straight game with at least 50 yards in receptions. Mike Bell (606 rushing yards, 5 TD) and Reggie Bush (339 rushing yards, 5 TD) are also tied with Thomas with five rushing scores. Bush is questionable for this weekend's tilt with a hamstring injury.
Tampa Bay held the Seahawks to 128 yards rushing last week despite being 30th in that category for the year, allowing 158.9 yards per game on the ground. Unlike Seattle, the Saints have a trio of talented running backs in Thomas, Bell and Bush, and won't be afraid to tap that well early and often on Sunday. The Bucs have been known for their suffocating defense in recent years, but the 2009 squad still has some work to do in order to reach greatness. The linebackers are young and quick, especially leading tackler Barrett Ruud (121 tackles, 1 INT). He finished tied with Talib with a team-high eight stops last week, while Hayes and Quincy Black (75 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT) combined for nine stops, with Black recording a sack. The main concern the Bucs should have is the matchups with the running backs in the secondary and against the linebackers. Tackles Ryan Sims (33 tackles, 1 sack) and Chris Hovan (27 tackles, 0.5 sacks) will be challenged up front against a cohesive New Orleans line, and will need help from sack-happy ends Jimmy Wilkerson (46 tackles, 6 sacks) and Stylez White (40 tackles, 6.5 sacks).
The one thing Williams, Ward and Winslow have in common this fantasy week, besides their alliterative surnames, is that they are worthy picks for Sunday. Even though New Orleans has a much-improved defense, these three will provide enough points to help most owners. Freeman is not a wise choice, because he's been picked off too many times lately and will be facing Saints stud defensive back Sharper. As for the Saints, practically every player on offense has a chance at getting at least five points this week. Brees, Colston, Henderson and Meachem are all smart choices against a weak Buccaneers stop unit, while the New Orleans defense is hoping for a bounce-back performance from a week ago. Any one of the three running backs, Thomas, Bell and Bush, matches up well with Tampa Bay on Sunday. Bush should be monitored frequently, though, because of a balky hamstring.
One more win and the Saints will control home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. It won't be an easy task for the Saints on Sunday, even though they destroyed Tampa Bay by a 38-7 score back on November 22 in the first meeting between these NFC South foes. Brees threw three touchdown passes that day, and is expected to have similar success with the possibility of the Superdome serving as home for the next few weeks. The defense may not hold the Buccaneers to seven points, but the offense will do enough to distance the gap. Tampa Bay's Morris is closing out a rather trying first season as head coach and could bolster both his resume' and the team's optimism for next season with an improbable win on Sunday. The chances of that happening are slimmer than Colston's frame, which will be bending and jumping in all sorts of directions during the Saints' upcoming franchise-best 14th victory of the season.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 36, Buccaneers 20
12/24 10:15:10 ET