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John DeShazier's key ingredients to a Saints victory presented by Papa John's

Posted Dec 29, 2017

Starting fast more important than ever

This is not a drill.

There’s plenty on the line for the New Orleans Saints (11-4) in the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay (4-11) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday afternoon. Namely, the NFC South Division-leading Saints have the chance to win their first division title since 2011, and to earn at least one home playoff game by doing so. But don’t count on the Buccaneers being pushovers; they wouldn’t mind serving as spoilers while they break a five-game losing streak. Count these tasks among the laundry list of items the Saints will look to accomplish in order to win the division.

1. New Orleans always wants to start fast. Against Tampa Bay, it could be significant because the harsh reality is this: Tampa Bay only has pride to play for. The Buccaneers aren’t going to the playoffs, and the possibility exists that their minds could wander if the Saints pounce. Division rival or no, an early Saints lead may prompt the Bucs to take an extended look at several backups in order to get a better evaluation heading into the offseason. The Saints would do well to establish themselves and take care of business early.

2. Drew Brees is on pace to have the most precise season in NFL history. He’s completing 71.9 percent of his passes – the NFL single-season record is 71.6 percent, set last year by Sam Bradford – and if that ranking stands, he’ll own three of the four best completion percentage years in league history. For most of the season, Brees hasn’t had to force the ball (entering Sunday’s game, he’s on pace to post his lowest totals in passing yards and touchdowns as a Saint, but also he’s on pace to have his fewest interceptions), and he has kept the Saints out of bad situations. The team has needed his calm, and it’ll continue to need it against Tampa Bay because many current Saints haven’t been in this position in their NFL careers. Brees chopped up the Bucs pretty thoroughly in the first meeting (22 of 27 for 263 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-10 victory), and the Saints obviously will benefit from something along those lines this time.

3. Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston was dinged up the first time the teams played; he’s not dinged up now. That Winston (7 of 13 for 67 yards and no touchdowns, and sacked twice) has been replaced by this one: 95 for 132 (72 percent) for 1,221 yards and eight touchdowns, with two interceptions, in the last four games. During that span, the Bucs have three three-point losses and one six-point loss, so they essentially have been one play from winning all four games. Winston will be facing a Saints defense that arguably has been the best pass defense in the league over the last four games, allowing 822 yards (205.5 per game), with six interceptions, nine sacks and five touchdown passes allowed. This is a strength-vs.-strength matchup. Pay close attention to the individual battle between Saints rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore (a team-leading five interceptions) and Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans. Lattimore got under Evans’ skin while helping limit Evans to one 13-yard reception in the first game, so much so that Evans’ second-half cheap shot from behind – following Winston’s instigation, while Winston was on the bench injured – resulted in a one-game suspension for Evans that easily could have been multiple games. Evans said he’ll apologize to Lattimore prior to the game; there’s a high probability, probably in the 99.999999999999 percent range – that the gesture won’t mean a thing to the rookie. Hopefully, things won’t get chippy while, hopefully, Lattimore continues his stingy ways.

4. Defensively, the Saints always are looking first to make a team one-dimensional. They held the Bucs to 87 yards on 25 carries in the first meeting, and that’s right in the neighborhood of what Tampa Bay has averaged this season (24 carries for 89 yards per game). A one-dimensional team means more throwing, which means more attempts from a hot Winston. But during Winston’s four-game tear he also has been sacked 18 times; Saints defensive end Cam Jordan has 12 sacks, and needs one to set a new single-season high (he had 12.5 in 2013), and defensive end George Johnson (2.5 sacks in two games) has been a nice late-season addition for the Saints.

5. A few more milestones, other than Jordan’s, worth tracking: Michael Thomas is two receptions shy of 100, which would make him the first receiver in franchise history to record 100, and he’s five short of breaking Jarvis Landry’s NFL record of 194 catches in his first two seasons; running back Alvin Kamara needs 74 yards from scrimmage to reach 1,500, and one more touchdown would give him 13 to tie George Rogers’ franchise record for rookies; if Mark Ingram has a rushing touchdown, it’ll be his 13th and that, also, would tie Rogers’ single-season mark.