Goal No. 1 remains in the New Orleans Saints’ line of sight, even more clearly defined than when they were entering the Dallas game because then, they needed a little help.
A victory against Dallas needed coupling with a Carolina loss in order for the Saints (10-2) to win the NFC South Division title for the second consecutive year, and clinch their playoff berth. When the Saints tripped up against the Cowboys, in a 13-10 loss that was their lowest-scoring game since a 16-11 road loss to Tampa Bay on Dec. 11, 2016, it didn’t matter that the Panthers also lost on the road, to the Buccaneers.
But on Sunday, New Orleans can handle all business for itself with a win over Tampa Bay (5-7) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. A victory gives New Orleans the division title (the first time in franchise history for back-to-back division titles), at least one home playoff game, consecutive 11-plus win seasons for the first time since 2010-11, and in play for the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
“Yeah, the bottom line is we control our destiny right now,” Drew Brees said. “We win this game, we win the division. And that's the first step, first goal that we set for ourselves this season, was to accomplish that and then we'll worry about the next goal. But that's significant.
“This division has been one where it's highly competitive and each and every year it seems like there is a different team or sets of teams that are all fighting for it at the end, and then one of us gets it. But yeah, that would be a big, big first step if (we) win the division with a win this week.”
A 10-game winning streak, the second-longest in franchise history, brought the Saints to this point. And players haven’t been avoiding the obvious.
“That’s definitely something that we’ve been thinking about,” defensive tackle Tyeler Davison said. “At the beginning of the year, that’s one of the first goals that we set for ourselves every year, to win the division. So to have a chance to do that right now, that’s a big deal.
“But with that being said, we also know that our goals are higher than that. We’re fighting to win every single game for the rest of the season, taking it one at a time, of course. But we’re trying to get that top seed. But the first step to that is winning the division. That’s what our goal is for this weekend.”
Tampa Bay appears to have cleaned up its act in the aftermath of three- and four-game losing streaks this season. The Buccaneers have won their last two behind a defense that has allowed a combined 26 points and forced six turnovers in the victories. Tampa Bay has allowed more than 26 points in seven games, but the Bucs have responded to the tone established by interim defensive coordinator Mark Duffner.
“I would say for the most part the scheme is the same and yet maybe they're doing some things a little bit differently,” Brees said. “Obviously, there is always a gameplan specific thing when it comes to us or any opponent, any divisional opponent especially. They've had a lot of personnel in and out just with injuries and that kind of thing, linebacking position, secondary.
“But I think those guys are playing really well right now. (The) last two weeks especially, they’ve been getting a bunch of takeaways. They do a really good job getting pressure with their front four and that's always been a strength of that team and continues to be. They're playing really well right now.”
The Saints, meanwhile are coming off one of their best defensive performances of the season (seven sacks and two takeaways against Dallas), and one of their worst offensive showings.
Brees said the loss could benefit the team.
“Sometimes you have to lose a battle to win the war,” he said. “You learn a lot from something like that. I do not think we were getting ahead of ourselves or anything like that. I just think we honestly just had a bad day and you turn on the film, and it's glaringly obvious where we failed and (we need to) make sure that that doesn't happen again.”