The 8-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take on the New Orleans Saints (6-8) for the second time in three weeks Saturday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, in a game that may prove to be the difference as to whether or not the Buccaneers make the playoffs. Here are a few individual matchups that could play a key role in determining the outcome of this critical Week 16 contest:
Saints WR Michael Thomas vs. Buccaneers CB Vernon Hargreaves
Take two on Thomas versus Hargreaves. Two weeks ago, we profiled this rookie vs. rookie faceoff as one of our key matchups to watch. Ninety minutes prior to kickoff, Thomas was shown on the Saints' inactive list, so these first-year players never got to meet head to head in the NFL. Hargreaves was still one to watch in that game, however, as he hauled in his first career interception. Coming into Week 16, Thomas leads his team with 76 receptions and has added 883 yards and eight touchdowns.
Saints TE Coby Fleener vs. Buccaneers LB Kwon Alexander**
Alexander racked up 21 tackles, the most in a single game by any NFL player since the 2013 season. He leads the NFL in solo tackles with 97 and also has three sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and one touchdown to his credit. Last week against Dallas, Cowboys TE Jason Witten had 10 receptions for 51 yards. If the Saints follow a similar game plan, Fleener could be heavily targeted in the Bucs-Saints rematch, though he was held to just one six-yard catch on three targets in the first meeting.
Saints T Zach Strief vs. Buccaneers DE Robert Ayers
Pro Football Focus grades Strief as the top Saints offensive lineman with a rating of 84.9. The Saints offense leads the NFL in total yards (423.3 per game) and the O-line has allowed just 23 sacks this season, sixth fewest in the league. Ayers had a sack in the Week 14 matchup and also posted four of the Buccaneers' seven QB hurries. Playing from multiple spots along the defensive line, Ayers will look to cause more havoc in the trenches, which helped lead to the three turnovers the last time these teams met.
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Saints.
Buccaneers RB Doug Martin vs. Saints LB Craig Robertson**
The Saints are allowing just under 100 rushing yards per game to their opponents, but have given up 17 touchdowns on the ground. Martin pounded in one of those scores in the first meeting and had 66 rushing yards. LB Stephone Anthony led the Saints in tackles in Week 14, filling in for the injured Robertson. Anthony, however, is now on IR while Robertson could return to the field this week and add to his team-leading 104 tackles.
Buccaneers TE Cam Brate vs. Saints S Vonn Bell
Teams have been keying on WR Mike Evans over the last few weeks, which has allowed Brate to prove himself as one of the league's top tight ends. Over the last three weeks, Brate leads the Buccaneers in receptions (15), receiving yards (206) and receiving touchdowns (2). Among tight ends, he is fourth in each of those categories over that same timeframe. Bell accounted for seven tackles and a half-sack in the first Bucs-Saints game and could be important in limiting Brate's production over the middle of the field.
Buccaneers G Kevin Pamphile vs. Saints DT Nick Fairley
Fairley had six tackles and a sack in the first matchup. He has the fifth-most sacks (5.5) of any NFL defensive tackle this season. He'll line up next to the Saints' top pass rusher, DE Cameron Jordan, which means Pamphile, along with LT Donovan Smith and C Joe Hawley, will need to be at their best in the rematch. The Bucs O-line has allowed 30 sacks this season (tied for 12th fewest) and have helped pave the way for another impressive offense. With two games remaining, the Buccaneers are closing in on a number of team milestones. They are 30 points away from being in the top five in points scored, 470 yards away from the top five in total yards and currently have the highest third-down conversion percentage in team history.