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Saints won’t stumble against Bucs

Zach Strief
December 09, 2018 - 3:36 am

It feels like forever ago.  It’s incredible how accustom we all become to an NFL schedule.  Every Sunday we wake up and get all strapped up, ready to take on the day’s opponent.  Except, last week’s game fell on a Thursday, for the second straight week.  Suddenly, we’re back to Sunday and even odder… a noon start time.  Maybe this is the perfect week to fall back to a normal Sunday game, at noon, versus a divisional opponent.  

Coming off just the second loss of the season, an unusually poor performance by the Saints offense has the entire Who Dat nation reeling and asking questions.  My instinct is to say fear not.  Then again, last week I gave up on worrying whether the Saints would play to their potential after worrying about it for 3 straight weeks, and their potential, they did not reach against the Cowboys.  But never fear Saints fans, a recharged and rejuvenated Saints team awaits you in Tampa.
 It can be hard as an outsider to see the difficulties in getting yourself mentally ready to play at your absolute best every week.  The stresses this team put on themselves to continue playing at the level they were playing at, in my opinion, led to a mental wear down that revealed itself on the field versus Dallas. I promise this isn’t an excuse, and I also promise there are no players that would tell you they think that is OK. I can tell you, that it is a reality.  I can also tell you, that few things can shock you back awake better than a disappointing loss.  The Saints have four weeks left to win the one seed in the NFC.  To do it, they most likely will need to win out.  It starts this week against a suddenly resurgent Bucs team.  
I could have written that last sentence about many Tampa teams over the last few years.  The Bucs are a team that seems to go into most seasons with high expectations as a result of a late season run, that shows the potential of a talented roster that doesn’t seem to be able to find any real consistency. In other words, it’s Groundhog Day in Tampa Bay.  

The Bucs have won the past two games, but more importantly, have found a way to plug the leak of turnovers that have been pouring out the bottom of their boat all season.  The Buccaneers have turned the ball over a league worst 30 times this year.  For comparison sake, the Saints have turned the ball over just 10 times.  Their -18 turnover differential is the reason why this Bucs team finds itself at 5-8.  Tampa has the NFL’s #1 offense in total yards.  They have thrown for more yards than anyone in football, and they have the best 3rd conversion rate in football at 49.3%.  Those are not numbers normally possessed by a team with a 2% chance of making the playoffs in week 14 of an NFL season.  Yet, that is exactly what they are.  Not to say the Bucs haven’t looked the part over their short two week winning streak.  
Suddenly, Tampa Bay has become a defense finding its way to the QB and to the football.  Their 15 sacks over the last 4 games are second best in football (the Saints are first with 20), and after picking off four Cam Newton passes last week, the Bucs suddenly are a secondary of ball hawks too.  It’s quite the accomplishment considering how decimated their secondary has been by injuries.  The emergence of Carl Nassib for this Bucs team has allowed Jason Pierre-Paul (10.5 sacks) and Gerald McCoy (6 sacks) to receive less attention than normal. And, the defensive line has responded for new defensive coordinator Mark Duffner, allowing just 26 points over the last two weeks.  
Okay, I don’t have it in me to praise the Bucs anymore.  At the end of the day, Tampa Bay has beaten a 2-win 49ers team and a reeling Panthers team that’s now lost 4 straight.  They have not turned the ball over for two weeks, and that has been cause for celebration here in Tampa. The Saints meanwhile have been the best defense in football over the past month.  In that time period they are first in points per game (12.8), first in takeaways (11), first in sacks (20) and first in QB hits (31).  The Saints defense… not their offense, makes them the most dangerous team in football right now.  This will be a big challenge for the Saints D even without wide receiver Desean Jackson, who torched the Black & Gold in the first matchup.  In reality, receiver Chris Godwin has thrived without Jackson in the lineup including a +100 yard game last year vs the Saints including a 39 yard dagger to give the Bucs the lead for good.  

The Saints will see a different QB in Jameis Winston.  He has been very good over the past two weeks completing over 73% of his passes and not turning the ball over once.  This will be a different week for him, facing a Saints defense that has excelled in taking the ball away over the past month.

For the first time this season head coach Sean Payton has addressed with the team exactly what their situation is in the race for the NFC.  It’s taboo in the NFL to look past the next week, but the reality of their situation is the perfect motivation for the next four weeks.  In spite of holding the 2 seed in the NFC, and having the opportunity to win the NFC South in back to back years for the first time ever, the Saints feel like their back is against the wall.  It’s the perfect place for them to be as they come down the home stretch.  The Saints know that a one seed makes them the favorite to return to the Super Bowl for the first time in 9 years.  They know what an extreme homefield advantage they would hold and the importance of having it throughout the playoffs.  They also know that the Rams are unlikely to lose twice with their remaining schedule.  That leaves no room for error for the Saints, over the regular season’s final month.  They know that, and I would expect them to play like that.  

This has been an exciting season for all of the Saints faithful.  We have set offensive records, we have played tremendous defense and had a 10-game winning streak.  Do not be discouraged by a simple loss against a better than you think Dallas team.  The Saints have the whole season ahead of them.  Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive end for the Bucs, said, “the playoffs start this week.” He’s right.  Unfortunately, it is the start for both teams, but the end of theirs.  The Saints take the next step towards the ultimate prize vs. Tampa Bay.  It’s a step they won’t stumble on.

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