This one doesn't need much hype.
When the New Orleans Saints (5-2) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2) kick off Sunday night at Raymond James Stadium, the winner claims first place in the NFC South Division. For the Saints, a win would mean a season sweep over the Bucs and the tiebreak advantage – meaning the Bucs would have to finish a game ahead in order to win the division. And for Tampa Bay, a win would push it a game ahead in the loss column and leave New Orleans playing catch-up.
High stakes. National television. Record-setting, Hall of Fame-bound quarterbacks.
Here are a few ways in which the Saints hope to leave Tampa, Fla., with a victory:
- TOSS, NO TURNS: During the Saints' current four-game winning streak, Drew Brees has completed 75 percent of his passes for 1,138 yards and seven touchdowns, with two interceptions, and even has added two rushing touchdowns. That production has come without receiver Michael Thomas. Well, at long last – six games, to be exact – Thomas appears poised to return to game action. So, too, is Emmanuel Sanders, and their return is timely, to say the least, because Tampa Bay's secondary is clingy (229 yards per game allowed, 14th fewest in the NFL, just 211 per game the last three and down from 270 per game allowed last year). The Bucs cover, but if the Saints have their full arsenal (Thomas, Sanders, running back Alvin Kamara and tight end Jared Cook), they'll take their chances with the matchups. Weather could be an issue (rain is forecast), so securing and protecting the ball will be as critical as usual. The Saints only have turned it over five times this season, and that's where they'd like the total to remain.
- POUND AWAY: Statistically, it almost sounds like a fool's errand to run the ball against the Bucs. Tampa Bay allows 70.4 rushing yards per game, far and away the fewest in the league. But New Orleans has to have balance, and so it has to keep trying. In the season-opening, 34-23 win over Tampa Bay, the Saints had 82 rushing yards on 34 attempts. The attempts at least keep the Bucs honest, and if it's not really happening on the ground, screen passes and dump-offs can be just as valuable. Kamara will make Tampa Bay pay if its makes a mistake in its run defense, but the offensive line has to hold its own. If rain is a factor in the passing game and footing is dicey because of it, Kamara becomes more valuable because of his presence in the passing game.
- SQUEEZE THE POCKET: One of the few quarterbacks who could claim to be on a hotter streak than Brees is Tampa Bay's Tom Brady: 1,950 yards, 18 touchdowns, two interceptions while completing 67 percent of his passes since the season-opening loss. And this week, he adds receiver Antonio Brown to the offensive arsenal that already will include receiver Mike Evans and tight end Rob Gronkowski. The Saints had a successful day against Brady in the opener, with two interceptions and three sacks. It'll be difficult to match those numbers, but New Orleans does need to shake him up if it can't sack him. The Saints are coming off a five-sack performance against Chicago, by a combined six players – safety Malcolm Jenkins and defensive linemen David Onyemata, Cam Jordan, Trey Hendrickson, Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport. The push up the middle will be crucial (get in Brady's face, don't allow him to step up if possible) because New Orleans will need all the up-front help it can get. The secondary's job won't be easy. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore needs his "A" game, which he usually provides against Tampa Bay's Mike Evans, but Jackrabbit Jenkins, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Marcus Williams, P.J. Williams and Patrick Robinson all need to be on top of theirs, too.
- SPECIAL THINGS: It's rare that the Saints don't win the special teams phase of the game, and they'll probably need to win it in this game, too. In the season opener, New Orleans benefited from a blocked field goal attempt and a recovered fumble on a kickoff. The Saints may not have plays as impactful as those, but kicker Wil Lutz has provided the game-winning points in three straight wins, returner Deonte Harris and his blockers were outstanding against the Bears, and punter Thomas Morstead continues to pin opponents inside the 20 when given the opportunity. If Harris can swing field position once or twice, it might be the difference in the game.
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