The first two were for the NFC South Division title.
This one is for much, much more.
When the New Orleans Saints (13-4) face Tampa Bay (12-5) on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the winner of the Divisional Playoff game will advance to the NFC Championship Game, one victory short of reaching the Super Bowl. The Saints, we know, swept the regular-season series en route to an unprecedented run through the South division, and entered this season expecting to be exactly where they are.
So did the Buccaneers, so something has to give.
- WIN UP FRONT: The defensive key to New Orleans' regular-season sweep was that the Saints dominated the Buccaneers up front. In the two games, the Saints totaled six sacks, 15 quarterback hits, five interceptions and 13 passes defensed and defensive end Trey Hendrickson (four of his 13.5 total sacks) especially was effective. Of course, the Bucs have made adjustments to minimize the duress for quarterback Tom Brady – they might even shy away a bit from the deep drops and longer-developing routes. But if New Orleans can maintain the edge it has had up front, that will go a long way in determining the winner.
- SHADOW DANCING: As good as the defensive line was against Tampa Bay in the regular season, let's not forget to give some credit to the job that was done in coverage. Cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Jackrabbit Jenkins shone in the first two games, and they – and the rest of the secondary – will be no less important Sunday. The Buccaneers have Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and Scott Miller at receiver, and Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate at tight end. That's a lot of firepower, but the Saints have had adequate counters with the likes of Malcolm Jenkins and Marcus Williams at safety, C.J. Gardner-Johnson as a jack-of-all-trades defensive back, and P.J. Williams off the bench (or starting, if necessary). Plus, linebackers Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone are in the mix. There'll be times when they'll need to cover well enough to force Brady to hold the ball, to give the defensive linemen an extra second to disrupt Brady. They already have proven they can, and they have to do it again. Postscript: Lattimore vs. Evans is always must-see, but you already know that.
- BIRTHDAY GIFT: Drew Brees' 42nd birthday was Friday, but there isn't a better gift his teammates can give him than an efficient offensive performance Sunday. To that end, pass protection always is a high priority. Brees threw six touchdowns, without an interception, in the two regular-season games against Tampa Bay and he only was sacked twice. Expect the Buccaneers to get creative with their pressures because they haven't had much success against Saints offensive tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead, each of whom has had an outstanding season. Watch the middle of the line; New Orleans guards Andrus Peat and Cesar Ruiz will be critical, because in-the-face pressure mainly is the most effective pressure. Also watch for the possibility that the Bucs will play more man to man in the secondary; if that's the case, New Orleans' Michael Thomas could be a huge influence.
- CHIP AWAY: Tampa Bay allowed a league-low 80.9 rushing yards per game during the regular season, and gave up just 86 (on 23 carries) in its Wild Card victory over Washington. Like the Saints, the Buccaneers want to make an opponent one-dimensional. But in the regular season games, the Saints were as effective against the Bucs as any team, totaling 220 yards and two touchdowns on 71 carries. The run threat is significant, New Orleans has shown the patience to stay with it and has been rewarded with its best rushing season under Coach Sean Payton. The Saints only can remain patient if they're ahead or the score is close, and they need the running threat to keep the offense balanced. If they chip away enough, running back Alvin Kamara usually breaks through with a chunk run.
- SPECIAL SAUCE: In a big game, sometimes a special team play can be the difference-maker. The Saints have had a few this season including a blocked field goal against the Bucs and two fumble recoveries against San Francisco. Wil Lutz has made one of his last five field goal attempts, and that's just not his resume. Whatever needed smoothing out in the snap-hold-kick operation hopefully has been smoothed.
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