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NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (4-3) at New Orleans (5-3)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It doesn't make a lot of sense.
In the past few seasons, while regularly running roughshod over the NFL with a record-friendly passing attack, the New Orleans Saints have occasionally -- and inexplicably -- been reduced to simply average at the most inopportune of moments.
And the foe most often responsible for those slip-ups -- the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Though the Saints have been .500 or better in four of five seasons and double- digit winners three times over that span, the often-lowly Buccaneers -- winners of four or fewer games twice in that same stretch -- are 6-5 against New Orleans since 2006, which includes a 26-20 win at Raymond James Stadium last month.
The 2011 rematch comes this Sunday at the Superdome.
As a prelude, frustration was compounded for the men of the Big Easy last weekend, when the NFC South-leading Saints took a step back to the pack with a stunning 31-21 loss to previously-winless St. Louis.
The last time they faced the Buccaneers, New Orleans entered with a four-game win streak. One game after the loss in Tampa Bay, it routed winless Indianapolis, 62-7. Then came the loss to the Rams.
Go ahead...you figure it out.
"The truth hurts. We've lost two out of three and we've lost them in similar ways," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "We've turned the ball over, which will get you beat. We haven't been as balanced as we should be on offense, so that's a matter of execution."
The Saints never competed in St. Louis, trailing 24-0 in the third quarter against a team which hadn't scored more than 16 points any game this season.
"It kind of felt like a nightmare," offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod said. "We've got to refocus and put this tough one behind us, because the more we harp on it, the more it's going to eat us up."
New Orleans leads the South by a half-game apiece over the Buccaneers and Atlanta, neither of whom played last week. A win for Tampa Bay gives it an automatic pass into the divisional penthouse after having recorded previous wins over both the Saints and the Falcons, whom the Bucs defeated in Week 3.
"It's all clumped up in the NFC South. Perfect suiting for us," Tampa head coach Raheem Morris said. "Perfect suiting for winning this division like we talked about at the beginning of the year. Somebody has to do it, why not us? We do feel like we're in a good position."
The Buccaneers have also lost two of their last three games, mostly recently a 24-18 setback to Chicago in London that preceded the team's bye week.
"We haven't played our best football clearly, and that's a good thing."
Expected back for Tampa Bay after two games on the shelf is second-year running back LeGarrette Blount, who had 328 yards and three touchdowns in five games before spraining the MCL in his left knee in a loss at San Francisco on Oct. 9. His replacement, veteran Earnest Graham, is out for the season after tearing an Achilles' tendon in Week 7.
"LeGarrette brings a lot to the table, he's one of those guys that can come in there and really be what we want to be on offense," Morris said. "He's obviously one of our guys that we're gonna depend on to make big plays. We're expecting big things out of LeGarrette Blount."
New Orleans now has a 22-17 advantage in its all-time series with Tampa Bay following the Buccaneers' aforementioned win back in Week 6. The two divisional foes have split the home-and-home set in each of the past three seasons, while the visitor had prevailed in each of the last four meetings prior to Tampa Bay's triumph on Oct. 16. The Bucs have had recent success in the Superdome, having won in three of their last four stops in the Big Easy. That includes a 23-13 verdict over the Saints in the 2010 regular-season finale as well as a 20-17 overtime decision the previous year.
The Saints' Sean Payton has gone 5-5 against Tampa Bay during his six-year tenure as the team's head coach, while Morris improved to 3-2 against both New Orleans and Payton with last month's win.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman aims for a fourth division win in row and has won his past two starts against New Orleans, completing 44-of-67 of his passes (65.7 percent) for 558 yards with four touchdowns and a 111.4 rating over those games. In his career, the Bucs are 7-1 when Freeman starts and has a 100-plus rating. When Blount has 18 or more carries, the team is also 7-1, and in those eight games, he has rushed for 834 yards (104.3 per game) and five touchdowns. Wide receiver Mike Williams had a touchdown catch in Tampa's win at New Orleans last season and aims for a third game in a row with six or more catches. Williams and tight end Kellen Winslow are tied for the team lead with 31 catches, while Winslow has a catch in 83 games in row. Wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe had a 24-yard touchdown in the Week 7 loss to Chicago.
For the Saints on defense, safety Roman Harper has 14 sacks since the start of 2006, the most by a defensive back during that period. End Will Smith has a sack in three of his last four games against Tampa Bay and linebacker Jonathan Vilma had a fumble return for a touchdown last week.
Statistically, Tampa Bay is 24th in the league in scoring offense (18.7 ppg), 15th in total yards (340.4 ypg), 12th in passing yards (240.3 ypg) and 23rd in rushing yards (100.1 ypg). New Orleans is 22nd in scoring defense (23.6 ppg), 15th in total yards allowed (346.0 ypg), 11th in pass defense (221.9 ypg) and 24th against the run (124.1 ypg).
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Brees has 20 or more completions in an NFL-record 28 straight games and has thrown a touchdown pass in 35 consecutive contests, meaning he can tie Brett Favre for the second-longest streak in NFL history. Since the start of 2008, Brees is 22-7 at home including the playoffs, and has compiled a 70.1 completion percentage, 8,862 yards (305.6 per game), 77 touchdowns passes against 23 interceptions and a 109.5 rating. Running back Darren Sproles is the only player in the NFL this season with two rushing touchdowns, two receiving scores and a return touchdown. Backfield mate Mark Ingram is second among NFL rookies with 329 rushing yards and had a rushing touchdown in these teams' last meeting, but is questionable to play this week due to a bruised heel. Running back Pierre Thomas has nine touchdowns (five rushing, four receiving) in his past 11 games against division foes and would be in line for more work if Ingram doesn't play. Tight end Jimmy Graham leads all players at his position in receptions (49) and receiving yards (713) and had seven catches for 124 yards in last month's loss to Tampa Bay. Wide receiver Marques Colston had seven catches for 118 yards and a touchdown in that contest, while counterpart Devery Henderson has five career receiving touchdowns against Tampa Bay and averages 50 yards per scoring catch. Wide receiver Robert Meachem has 20 career receiving touchdowns, 13 of which have gone for 25 or more yards, and has four touchdowns in his past five games against Tampa Bay.
For the Bucs, cornerback Ronde Barber has started 190 consecutive games, the most by a cornerback in NFL history. He is the only player in NFL annals with 25 or more sacks (27) and 40 or more interceptions (41) as well and has two games with a career-high three interceptions, both coming against New Orleans. Barber had a safety in Week 7. End Adrian Clayborn ranks second among NFC rookies with three sacks, while safety Tanard Jackson aims for a third game in a row with an interception. Middle linebacker Mason Foster has 32 tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery in his rookie season.
By the numbers, New Orleans is second in scoring offense (32.5 ppg), second in total yards (444.1 ypg), first in passing yards (326.8 ypg) and 11th in rushing yards (117.4 ypg). The Bucs are 24th in scoring defense (24.1 ppg), 29th in total yards allowed (391.1 ypg), 26th in pass defense (267.7 ypg) and 23rd against the run (123.4 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
New Orleans has won 23 game in a row when it's rushed for at least 125 yards, but the Saints are 0-3 when reaching less than 100 yards on the ground in 2011. Tampa Bay's defense is allowing 123.4 rushing yards per game, but held the Saints to 70 in their Week 6 victory.
Young quarterback Freeman is 3-1 lifetime against the Saints, with five touchdowns and two interceptions. He threw for 303 yards against New Orleans last time around, but had four interceptions in the loss to the Bears. How he performs will go a long way in determining whether the Bucs are successful on Sunday.
Including the playoffs, the host Saints are 16-5 at home since 2009, but 0-2 against the Buccaneers over that same stretch. This year, they're 3-0 at home with a 44.0 points-per-game average, and the Bucs won't have a chance if their opponents comes close to that number.
Though the Saints have shown a disturbing tendency to trip over games they should win, it looks unlikely here. Combine a potent offense that's facing a middling defense, a home-field advantage and the motivation of recent embarrassment, and it yields a convincing win for the would-be NFC South elites.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 27, Buccaneers 17
11/03 14:26:52 ET