Week 13 concludes Monday with an NFC South showdown between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints.
Both teams enter the game coming off of disappointing losses, though in very different fashions. The Buccaneers lost to the Browns last weekend after they were held scoreless in the fourth quarter and overtime. On the other hand, the Saints failed to score any points at all in a loss to the 49ers in Week 12, the first time they've been shut out in over two decades.
With only a handful of games left in the regular season, this matchup comes at a key point to determine who could finish the year at the top of the NFC South. Currently the Buccaneers hold that spot, but are tied in the win column with the Atlanta Falcons (5-8). And with no team in the division sitting at .500 or above, it's looking like a divisional crown will be the only way to get into the playoffs.
Also on the line is the season sweep, as Tampa Bay won the teams' first matchup of the season back in Week 2, turning the tables on a rivalry game which has largely gone in New Orleans’ favor the last couple years. While things are a bit different for the second game of the year (with a new quarterback in Andy Dalton under center for the Saints), there’s still always the intrigue of a divisional game in December, with some interesting points of note in the matchup.
Here are four things to watch for when the Ravens visit the Saints:
- There's history between the teams. Since quarterback Tom Brady left the New England Patriots for the Buccaneers ahead of the 2020 season, the Saints have been his kryptonite, as he’s 1-4 against them (not including playoffs) while playing for Tampa Bay. In the past two years, New Orleans has had a special knack for forcing Brady to commit turnovers, with the QB throwing eight interceptions in four games. However, Brady did lead the Bucs to victory over the Saints in their first matchup this season, with nary an INT to be had in the win. Will the Saints bring back their trend of impressive defensive showings against Brady, or will the G.O.A.T. pick up where he left off in September? In addition, that most recent game also featured a dramatic brawl late in the game, as Tampa wide receiver Mike Evans and New Orleans cornerback Marshon Lattimore were ejected after a shove sparked a fight between the two teams. The incident was a culmination of multiple interactions between the pair in previous games, and this latest confrontation led to Lattimore receiving a fine and Evans being suspended for a game. While neither team has had the sort of impressive statistical season many expected of them, this matchup still has some interesting storylines to follow. (Editor's note: NFL Network's Sara Walsh reported Monday afternoon that Lattimore was not expected to play.)
- Saints' mistakes have been costly. One common thread that can be seen in both New Orleans’ loss to Tampa earlier this season and in their struggles throughout the season is the Saints' issues with beating themselves. The offense is tied for the most turnovers (21), the defense has the fewest takeaways (seven), and overall that makes them the worst team in the league in turnover margin. They have not been able to take advantage of other teams' mistakes, or avoid making their own. In the first game against the Bucs in Week 2, then-starting quarterback Jameis Winston threw three interceptions, and the team had four fumbles (two lost). And in the shutout loss to the 49ers, running back Alvin Kamara lost two fumbles, the latter of which came at San Francisco’s 6-yard line, wasting a long fourth-quarter drive that could have put points on the board. While there are issues on both sides of the ball that have also contributed to New Orleans’ struggles this season, it’s hard to ignore the role that turnovers have played in the Saints’ losing record.
- Bucs’ offensive line continues to be thin. On a team which has generally struggled with injuries at various points in the season, the Tampa Bay offensive line is one area where there’s been a notable amount of turnover throughout the year. Former guard Alex Cappa signed with the Bengals in free agency, and guard Ali Marpet retired, already changing up the line before play even began. And then center Ryan Jensen, who had just been re-signed to a big three-year deal in the offseason, suffered a serious knee injury just days into training camp and has not seen the field since then. And the hits just keep coming, as tackle Tristan Wirfs suffered an ankle injury during last week’s loss to the Browns, an injury that appeared serious and resulted in him being carted off the field. While it was later reported that Wirfs avoided major damage and is week to week, he's out Monday, robbing the Buccaneers of yet another consistent presence on the offensive line. Tampa has had to roll with the punches to adjust to its ever-changing front line this season, and this latest injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. As part of the Saints’ dominance over Brady’s offense over the last two years, the New Orleans defense has racked up 13 sacks over four games from 2020-2021. While this season’s first matchup only resulted in one sack, will the Bucs’ ability to protect Brady be negatively affected by the absence of Wirfs, especially against a team which has historically done well at getting into the backfield?
- Can either team get the run going? Tampa Bay started the season with 152 rushing yards in Week 1, but from there the running attack has been unable to get anything going, failing to exceed 75 yards on the ground in any game between Week 2 and 9, leading to them holding the last-ranked rushing offense in the league at this point. There has been a slight glimpse of hope, however, in the last two games. In the Bucs’ win over the Seahawks in London in Week 10, the offense collected a season-high 161 rushing yards. And against the Browns, the Bucs finished with 96 rushing yards. The common denominator between these two games has been the emergence of rookie Rachaad White, who had seen only limited usage behind Leonard Fournette earlier in the season. After Fournette exited the London game with a hip injury, White exploded for 105 yards against Seattle, and then added another 64 yards against Cleveland. Is this an indication that things might be trending upward for the Bucs run game, especially if the usage of White continues? On the other hand, while having the 22nd-ranked rush offense isn’t the worst for the Saints, it’s the last few games that have been concerning. After eight weeks of solid numbers, New Orleans has averaged 57 rushing yards per game in the last four contests. Kamara just hasn’t been racking up the yards in the last few weeks, and as mentioned earlier, he had trouble taking care of the football against the 49ers. And no one else has stepped up. So, with two teams trending in opposite directions, how will the run game affect each team’s chances in this game?