The incentive for the New Orleans Saints (11-4) on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., is to win the NFC South Division title.
The incentive for Tampa Bay (4-11) is to prevent that from happening on its home field.
Simply, the Buccaneers, who have lost five straight games entering their season finale, have little more to play for other than pride and to fill the role of spoiler for New Orleans, which still could win the division crown if Carolina loses its regular-season finale against Atlanta, or if the Saints and Panthers each play to a tie in their respective games.
With that in mind, the Saints have been alerted to the fact that every possibility in Tampa Bay's playbook is on the table.
"Yesterday, we harped on it," Saints Coach Sean Payton said Thursday morning, in a teleconference with local media. "In the kicking game, there's no surprise onside kicks this week, they're just onside kicks. There's no surprise fake field goal, it's just an anticipated thing. There's no "surprise"; we can't use that word. It's that type of mentality when you play a team like this.
"I would say this, though: We just did the third-down report. In the last month, they're converting over 50 percent on third down. They've been as good as anyone in football. I think (Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston) is playing some of his better football right now. They were in every way, shape or form, in a position to win – and should have won, probably – the Carolina game, and they didn't. But I think, yeah, you've got to be on point and ready for that type of nothing-to-lose mentality."
D-LINE DEPTH: Payton said that there were two factors that led to the signing of defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, who was with the Saints in training camp this year before being released, and appearing in four games this season with San Francisco.
"I think factor one, his experience on a good defense and playing in the postseason," Payton said. "And then, two, he's been here and we keep a short list and we update that. Believe it or not, every week we update the short list as to, 'Hey, Kasim Edebali was just waived yesterday. Where's he at?' And you're constantly tinkering with this list and so, I think both those factors of his background experience, and then him being with us in the system, it all fit."
The corresponding move to signing McDaniel was that the Saints placed defensive end John Hughes III on injured reserve.
McDaniel has spent time with Jacksonville, Miami, Seattle, Tampa Bay and San Francisco after originally being signed as an undrafted rookie by the Jaguars in 2006 out of Tennessee. He has appeared in 145 career games with 47 starts, and has 285 tackles (163 solo), 11.5 sacks, 14 passes defensed, one forced fumble and three fumble recoveries. He had 43 tackles, three passes defensed and one fumble recovery with Seattle in in 2016.
"PLAYER/COACH" NO MORE: Fullback John Kuhn returned to practice Wednesday from injured reserve. Kuhn had surgery to repair a biceps injury and possibly could rejoin the active roster this season. Payton said, tongue in cheek, that the coaching staff was as ready for Kuhn to return as was Kuhn.
"He's got 21 days and I think more than anything, it's just getting him practicing and we essentially get a 54th body," Payton said. "And I know that he wants to play and wants to continue his career. He's been hanging out here with the coaching staff late nights and we're getting kind of tired of him, really. And so, he can now go back down (in the locker room) and start training. But it'll give him a chance to get back in the flow of things and you don't know how things go, but we have 21 days to either bring him to the roster or not."
D.A.'s DEFENSE PRESENTS ITS CASE: The Saints defense greatly has improved this season under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Currently, Saints opponents are averaging 19.7 points and 328.6 yards per game, down from 28.4 and 375.4, respectively, last season.
In doing so, the defense has overcome a rash of losses. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley and cornerback Delvin Breaux, projected starters, haven't played a snap; linebackers Alex Anzalone and A.J. Klein, defensive end Alex Okafor and safety Kenny Vaccaro – all starters – went on injured reserve during the season; and valuable reserves like linebacker Nate Stupar joined them there.
"I think Dennis has done a great job," Payton said. "He and his staff, I couldn't have been more proud. I felt last week was a great example. I was talking to (linebackers coach) Mike (Nolan) at practice (Wednesday), (linebacker) Manti Te'o played one of his better games, I think, that he's been in as an NFL player (against Atlanta on Sunday). The guys have embraced that role and D.A. and that staff, all those guys have busted their tail and worked long hours and certainly, you like to see the fruits of that."