Buccaneers, Saints face off for first time this season
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints are rare division rivals to have still not played each other this season.
As they face off twice in three weeks, there's much on the line, especially for the streaking Buccaneers, who have won four straight to move into playoff contention.
"This is a big game for both teams because of the way the scheduling falls, where New Orleans plays us twice and Atlanta once in the last three weeks," Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said Wednesday. "We have three division games in the last four weeks, so that makes this game -- the way our division is so tight right now, these division games are huge.
"Us and Atlanta sitting there at 7-5, New Orleans at 5-7, just do the math for New Orleans and we're not too far ahead. So it's going to be huge."
The Saints (5-7) lost 28-13 at home to Detroit on Sunday, which put them two games behind the Buccaneers, who are tied with Atlanta for the NFC South lead.
Not only does New Orleans play Tampa Bay twice, but it also plays at Atlanta, so there's a sense of controlling its fate, even if the odds are unlikely at this point.
"We've just got to play this one," Saints coach Sean Payton said Wednesday. "But I think we're going to play Tampa twice here in three weeks, we're going to play Atlanta and we're going to play at Arizona. We are going to have to play well on the road because three of the four are on the road.
"I think when the schedule comes out, sometimes you get, it's unique to be playing a team in your division or not have played them when you hit December and that's the case with our two teams."
The Buccaneers have turned their season around since falling to 3-5 with lopsided home losses to the Oakland Raiders and Falcons. In four straight wins since, they've held opponents to 13 points per game and have led the league in takeaways. On Sunday in a win over San Diego, linebacker Lavonte David returned one interception for a touchdown and safety Keith Tandy picked off another in the end zone to seal a 28-21 road win.
The Saints are another challenge entirely, leading the NFL in total offense and passing offense, ranking second in scoring offense and first in third-down conversions.
Quarterback Drew Brees leads the league in yards and touchdown passes (30) and is on course for his fifth career 5,000-yard season, incredible considering that every other quarterback in NFL history has combined for four.
Tampa Bay is building confidence around second-year quarterback Jameis Winston, who has been able to limit his turnovers and still make plays, like a go-ahead touchdown pass to tight end Cameron Brate in the fourth quarter Sunday in San Diego.
The Buccaners are dangerously thin at receiver -- Mike Evans is among the league's best, second in the NFL with 10 touchdown catches, but veterans Vincent Jackson, Louis Murphy and Cecil Shorts are all out for the remainder of the season.
Even second-year receiver Adam Humphries might miss Sunday's game with a concussion suffered in Sunday's win, leaving younger, less proven players to step up.
On Sunday, that will include former Eagles receiver Josh Huff, promoted from the practice squad to replace Shorts, four weeks after the Buccaneers added him to their practice squad following an arrest in New Jersey on gun and marijuana charges and subsequent release by Philadelphia.
Huff will add speed to the Buccaneers' downfield passing game and could also upgrade their kickoff returns. Tampa Bay ranks last in the league, with a long of 24 yards all season. Running back Charles Sims, a pass-catching threat out of the backfield who has been sidelined since Week 4, was activated off injured reserve Saturday.
Many of the Buccaneers' biggest wins have come on the road, but they've won two straight at home, and Koetter recognized a surge in the attendance to match the one in the standings.
"It's been fantastic, that's what it's been," he said. "That's how it should be and that's how we should keep it. We've got to do our part and the fans are definitely doing theirs. Appreciate it, appreciate it very much. Let's do it this week, too."
Updated December 10, 2016