Sure, payback might be on the New Orleans Saints’ mind. That wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility, since their 48-40 loss to Tampa Bay in the regular-season opener now stands as one of their two losses this season, came against a team they were favored to beat and is a reason they currently are a game behind the Rams for the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
But, primarily, there’s this: With a win, the Saints are in.
A victory Sunday in Raymond James Stadium would raise the Saints’ record to 11-2, give them the NFC South Division title for the second straight year, and clinch a playoff berth (and at least one home playoff game).
Exacting a bit of revenge only would be icing. Here are a few ways the Saints can take the cake:
- Defensively, New Orleans was shredded in the first game. Tampa Bay totaled 529 yards – that remains the season high against the Saints – and six touchdowns (one on a fumble return), and the pass defense was as porous as it has been at any time this season. Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 21 of 28 passes for 417 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions and he wasn’t sacked, and receivers Mike Evans (seven catches, 147 yards and a touchdown) and DeSean Jackson (5-146-2) ran wild and free through the secondary. The good news for the Saints is, Jackson (thumb) likely won’t play Sunday. The better news for the Saints: The pass defense is significantly improved. The Saints have 10 interceptions and 37 sacks in 11 games since the opener. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore has four takeaways this season (an interception and three fumble recoveries), and defensive end Cam Jordan (10 sacks, four passes defensed, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and 15 quarterback hits) has been instrumental in the improvement. Also, keep this in mind: Although Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston, who replaced an ineffective Fitzpatrick, has been turnover-less in the last two games, he has 11 interceptions and has fumbled five times (one lost) in seven games. His judgment and ball security can be loose, and the Saints know it.
- In last year’s game against the Bucs in Tampa, the Saints’ defense was on the field 81 plays. This year, the Bucs’ offense leads the NFL in third-down conversion percentage (49.3), so it’s going to be important that the Saints get into advantageous third-down situations defensively, and then get off the field. Dominating time of possession is one way for opponents to keep the Saints’ potent offense off the field. It worked for Dallas (36:53 time of possession) and the Bucs have to figure it could work for them, too.
- There’s rain in the forecast, and the field could be sloppy. That doesn’t mean the Saints won’t throw the football, but it certainly could mean to a heavier workload for running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. The Saints only totaled 49 offensive plays, and 19 rushing attempts, in their 13-10 loss to Dallas. In the nine games prior to that, New Orleans was averaging 151 rushing yards per game on 32.2 carries per game. The Bucs allow 121 rushing yards per game and five yards per carry; ugly weather and tattered field conditions, or pristine skies and manicured-lawn look, the Saints will test the Bucs’ run defense and see if it’s up to the challenge.
- This game could cater to Kamara’s talents. As a runner and receiver, he has few peers and if there are issues throwing the ball downfield, he’s a fantastic check down option or primary receiver on short routes. As always, keep an eye on him because this could be a high-touch day.
- Whose kicking game will handle the wet conditions best? Field-goal attempts, punts, punt returns and kickoff returns all could be affected by the rain and wind. A gaffe on special teams could be the difference between victory and defeat.