The Tampa Bay Buccaneers travel to the Big Easy for the NFC divisional round, but their game against the New Orleans Saints won’t be easy.
The Buccaneers (11-5), seeded No. 5, enter the Super Bowl nearly empty as one of the hottest teams in football after a 31-23 shutout victory over the Washington football team in the Wild Card round.
Their rival in the Southern NFC, the Saints (12-4), represent a different kind of threat. The last time New Orleans played in Week 17, they beat the Carolina Panthers 33-7 in the first round.
The centerpiece of this game, of course, is the duel between two four-legged quarterbacks: Tom Brady and Drew Brees.
Brady is looking more like his best friend this season, as the 43-year-old scored 40 touchdowns in his first season at Florida. After making 13 appearances (!) in AFC title games with the New England Patriots, Brady is competing for his first season in the NFC for the conference championship.
Brees, 42, struggled all season with the strength of his arms, and a broken rib in Week 10 – forcing him to miss four games – couldn’t help him. Of course, he still has the experience, intelligence and surrounding talent to succeed. In 2020, he was a 9-3 starter, threw 24 TDs against six interceptions and completed 70.5% of his passes. His 10.7 yards per completion is among the lowest of his career.
This is the first playoff game between the two legends and – if Brees retires after the season, as rumors have it – it could be the only one we see with the Saints and Bucs.
Oh, and these teams are ranked #1 and #2 in the DVOA.
My advice: Whether your betting ticket is a winner or not, just try to enjoy the Bucs – Saints game.
That said, let’s look at the game and make a prediction.
tugboat – holy play
As we write this, this is the state of the sportsbooks for this Wild Card contest:
Gingerbread: +2.5 (-102)
Saints: -2.5 (-145)
The end: 52.5 (-115)
Below: 52.5 (-105)
Why Buccaneers Can Cover
The Saints had a string of seasons against the Buccaneers. It’s simple.
New Orleans beat the Bucs 34-23 in the first week. Much to the chagrin of Bucs fans, the Saints inflicted their worst defeat of 2020 on the Bucs in Week 9 with a 38-3 rout at Raymond James Stadium.
In Bucks Saints, you can look at it two ways. First, it’s possible Sean Payton owns Bruce Arians. Even excluding the first week – the first time a Bucs team has played together since missing the preseason – Tampa entered week nine with six wins from eight games and was completely decimated, albeit in a short week.
Historically, as an excuse for the Bucs-Saints third game, the numbers don’t show that it’s particularly difficult to beat an opponent for the third time in a season. But it seems like this team from Tampa is totally different from the 8. November – and these historical figures do not include teams led by Brady.
The Saints know the Bucs are on the rise since their ninth straight week of losses. They are averaging 34.1 points and 438.9 yards – the second most productive offense in football.
Big receiver Antonio Brown has been exceptional since his debut with the Saints. Since then, Brown has picked off 42 passes for 452 yards and four scores in seven games, adding a versatile element to Brady’s arsenal.
Last Saturday, the Bucs rostered a defense that ranks 3rd in WFT (by DVOA) with 507 yards.
Fortunately for Tampa, wide receivers Mike Evans (knee) and Chris Godwin (hip/quad) will be fully available.
Back Ronald Jones II (quadruple/finger), who led the team this season with 978 yards, remains questionable. As a baseball player, the switch from RoJo to Leonard Fournette is cool, and his presence will certainly help the Bucs control the tempo against the Saints.
Regardless of which player is in the backfield, the Pirates should take advantage of the game against the Saints to create opportunities in the backfield. Look out for tight end Rob Gronkowski who was able to step up as an extra blocker against outside pressure and then run away for passes.
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles likes to keep the pressure on. The Bucs will force Brees to diagnose the blitz and create clean and intermediate shots for the Saints while the Tampa linebackers lurk in the middle.
One of the key games to keep an eye on will be RB Alvin Kamara’s game against Tampa’s top defender. Bowles likes to fill the box in his 3-4 scheme, anchored by linebackers Lavonte David and rookie Devin White. As good as Kamara was, the Bucs’ defense has made him better this season, holding him to 56 yards on a total of 21 carries.
Kamara may have to carry the load even more than usual today, as Taysom Hill and RB Latavious Murray are not expected to play for the Saints.
Why Saints Can Cover
According to Action Network (via Football Reference), the Saints rank fifth for kicks to the wall and sixth for percentage of sacks, despite blitzing often on average. Traditionally, pressure on Brady without a blitz is a recipe for playoff success. But if the Buccaneers’ offensive line defends Brady as effectively as it did against Chase Young and the much-touted WFT defensive front, the Saints’ best offensive plan might be thwarted. (Note: the Bucs’ star guard, Ali Marpet, missed the 9th week).
The Bucs have no clear answer for Michael Thomas. The wideout has been slowed by injuries this season, but recorded 19 receptions for 296 yards and two scores in two games against the Bowles defense in 2019. Given New Orleans’ narrow backfield and Tampa’s skill set, Brees, 42, Thomas and co. will have to give up a few downfields. If you think it’s in the old man’s hands, go with NOLA.
Don’t underestimate the Saints’ defense either, as Dennis Allen’s team is ranked 7th in the DVOA this season, according to Football Outsiders.
Saints are hawks. They bait the QB with deep throws and like to give up a lot of yards until they cause turnovers – this approach has produced 18 interceptions and leads the league. Overall, Brady has been the best passer in the backfield this season, according to Sharp Football Analysis, but he did struggle with New Orleans. He has thrown two TDs and five penalties against the Saints this season, compared to a 38/7 ratio against the rest of the league.
The Bucs could switch to a very busy game plan, but taking the game out of Brady’s hands should also benefit New Orleans. As ESPN notes, cornerback Marshawn Lattimore has been consistently shut out by Evans.
The Saints also have one of the best special teams in football. The gingerbread… no.
Beeches – Holy prophecy
Conclusion: These two teams are very well organized and explosive. Ultimately, this heavyweight scrimmage could be determined by Brady’s ability to throw deep balls against the Saints’ predatory secondary, as well as the Saints’ ability to control the ground game against the Pirates’ elite defense.
Or which future Hall of Fame QB stays on the ball last with the Bucs-Saints.
PICC: Tampa has an empty Superdome, the Bucs limit Kamara, and Brady has even more in the tank than Brees. Brees’ career ends again with the Saints’ playoffs.
TB 31, NO 27
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