The Saints despite being 1-4 can still control their own destiny in that the team has five more divisional games to play, including two against Atlanta. Add the three teams remaining in the NFC East (Philly, New York and Dallas, which are all teams that could be battling for playoff positions, and wins against them would give the Saints the tie breaker.
The road to what would surmount to a magical trip into the postseason (the Saints must likely win 9 of the final 11 games) begins in Tampa Bay on Sunday. Tampa and New Orleans split the season series last season with each team winning on its home field.
“It’s going to be a lot like these games usually are with them,” says Saints right tackle Zach Strief. “When you know a team as well as we know them, and they know us and you see a guy twice a year it kind of creates, cultivates a little bit extra. It’s going to be a battle. I have no doubt both teams are in positions that they would rather not be in so there’s a lot of fighting to be done to get out of our holes.”
The Buccaneers are 2-3 with those three losses being very close. At New York, the Bucs had a 24-13 lead at halftime before Eli Manning threw for over 500 yards on them to come back and win. Tampa lost to Dallas 16-10 and to Washington on a last second field goal after failing to hold on to the lead in the final minute and a half.
“They’re a very aggressive group, very explosive group,” says Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod. “Up front, they play hard they play with great pad level, good hands. Honestly we’re going to have to be firing on all cylinders to have success in the run and passing game.” The Bucs offensive line isn't bad either.
Tampa Bay last week rushed for 145 yards and passed it for 318 in their 38-10 win against the Chiefs. Stats the Saints secondary were referring to this week when reporters kept bringing up the fact that Tampa Bay is primarily a running team. “They came out threw the ball down the field and connected on a lot of those and caused some big plays,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins says of last week’s Bucs aerial attack. “It’s going to be a challenge keeping the ball in front of us. When they get those big plays down the field it often turns into points for them and it often leads to a win for them.”
Josh Freeman is only completing 55.2 percent of his passes and has eight touchdowns to go with five interceptions. Still the Saints secondary is regarding him with respect, “He can throw the deep ball. He has a powerful arm and he has real good touch on that deep ball and he extends plays,” says of Tampa Quarterback Josh Freeman.”
Tampa still will try and run the football though make no mistake. “They do a good job of running the football,” says Saints interim head coach Aaron Kromer. “They try to grind out plays and move the ball down the field on a consistent basis as opposed to a ton of big plays.”
“That second half against San Diego that’s how we have to play the entire game,” middle linebacker Curtis Lofton says. “Each week we've gotten better and better and you know it’s exciting. Guys are finally understanding what to do and how to get after quarterbacks and the secondary has been playing great. We just got to keep grinding and doing everything in practice and carry it over to the game.”
Expect a hard-nosed tough football game to start out. The Saints know the mountain they have to climb and the Bucs are looking to establish a new identity under Schiano. Tampa no doubt has been told that the Saints and Falcons are the top dogs of the division so it’s time to let them know what is up. So for starters the Saints better come into the game with a physical mindset.
Tampa offensively will start with the run and see where they go from there. The Saints have allowed big days to running backs this season so the key there will be if the Saints can stop the run. The Saints defensive line really won’t be worried about pass rushing rather run stopping. Will linebacker Jonathan Vilma have an impact if he plays? If he does I do believe he could provide some energy and perhaps leadership on the defense. That said he hasn't played a minute of football in a game since January.
Bottom line is I think the Saints barring crazy turnovers like last year’s game in Tampa Bay can handle the start of the game. The Bucs will be fired up, looking to make big hits to fire up the crowd and set the tone offensively as well. Brees and the Saints offense have had big games against Tampa in the past especially receiver Marques Colston. I look for Brees to throw between 350-400 yards and about three touchdowns in a 27-20 win.