Photos of the Saints' starters via team depth chart.
On November 1, the New Orleans Saints beat the New York Giants in an outrageous 52-49 shootout to finish the first half of their season at 4-4. A week later, the Giants came to Tampa and won 32-18, giving the Buccaneers a 3-5 record at the midway point of their campaign.
READ: SAINTS SCOUTING REPORT
Since then, the fortunes of the Buccaneers and Saints have diverged dramatically. While a young Tampa Bay team seemed to find itself in the season's third quarter, winning three of four to get back to .500 and stay relevant in the playoff race, the Saints have lost four in a row to all but exit the hunt.
If the Saints can't defy steep odds and get back in the postseason picture, it will essentially be the first time that has happened in the nine seasons that Sean Payton has been at the team's helm. And if the Buccaneers do enough over the next four weeks to grab a playoff spot, it will be their first since 2007.
Benjamin Watson, the Saints' 12th-year tight end, would obviously prefer that it was his team that was ascending instead of descending, but he has enough NFL experience to know that sometimes you must endure tougher times. Watson went to two Super Bowls, won one and never experienced a losing season in six years with the Patriots. He then spent three years in Cleveland and never won more than five games in a season. His first two seasons in New Orleans included one playoff season and one year in which the Saints lost a division tiebreaker to the Carolina Panthers.
"There are ebbs and flows for any NFL franchise," said Watson. "When you look at any franchise, there are going to be periods of plenty and periods of not so much and it's no different here. Fans love the team and one thing about being here in New Orleans, you understand that the team is kind of an extension of the people here. They really care about the players on the team and about the team. They obviously really want to win. This season has been tough for them and it's been really tough for us. Everybody that's in the business [knows] it's a winning business and we all want to win. But we have no doubt that the fans will continue to support us, because they always do."
Photos of QB Jameis Winston in a victory over the New Orleans Saints on September 20th.
The Bucs could get their first sweep of the Saints since 2007 on Sunday, but prior to Tampa Bay's Week Two win in the Superdome New Orleans had won seven straight in the head-to-head battle. That included both games in 2014, when the Buccaneers were struggling to a 2-14 record in Lovie Smith's first year as head coach. Things are obviously going quite a bit better for Smith and the Buccaneers in 2015, and while there have been some important additions – Jameis Winston, Dirk Koetter, new offensive linemen, etc. – much of the team's core was around last year, too. Watson is not surprised to see the Bucs turning things around.
"You can look across the league and see teams that maybe on paper, individually, they may not be as talented as another team, but they seem to win," he said. "And you have some teams that may be more talented on paper, but they don't seem to win. So when you have those teams, like [the Buccaneers] last year, a lot of great talent on that team. There was a new coach, things like that. It takes time to get things going sometimes."
Payton, who has taken five Saints teams to the playoffs and led the 2009 squad all the way to the Super Bowl title, can see the influence that new coach, Lovie Smith, quite clearly in 2015.
"From an opponent and from watching them, they're really doing a good job on defense with regards to taking the ball away [and] their run fits," said Payton. "It's been something that I think, over the years, Lovie has done a great job with. His defenses have really been gap-sound and on point. Offensively, you're watching a running game and you're seeing the quarterback grow and all of a sudden now you've got the receivers outside, the tight end, Doug Martin is having a fantastic year. So when you're stopping the run as effectively as they are and running the ball as effectively as they are, that's a good starting point."
Of course, the Saints haven't given up on their playoff hopes just yet, and even if they can't make that climb in 2015 they'll expect to be back in the hunt next year. They're watching the Bucs make the same sort of leap this year.
"Obviously now they're playing much better football than last year and it's manifesting itself in winning more games," said Watson. "They're a very talented team. I mean, it's the NFL, everybody has talent, but when you look across the board at some of the individual players that they have, there's a respect level there for them. They have good players on that team and they're obviously getting into their groove and starting to understand each other a little bit more, being that Lovie has been there for a little while longer."