The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are back in the final four of the NFC playoffs for the first time in 18 years. They're headed back to New Orleans for the second time in the last 19 weeks.
In a Divisional Round of playoffs that features some of the most prolific passers of all time as well as some of the league's most promising young quarterbacks, the matchup of the 43-year-old Brady and his Buccaneers with the 41-year-old Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints is the most newsworthy matchup. It's the first NFL postseason game ever featuring two starting quarterbacks in their 40s, although it's the third time this year the two future first-ballot Hall-of-Famers have done battle.
Brees, whose Saints won both matchups during the regular season and thus took the NFC South by one game over the Buccaneers, is not surprised to see Brady coming to town again.
"The minute that he signed with the Bucs and came in the division, you felt like that was gonna be a team to contend with," said Brees. "So I guess it was inevitable."
And perhaps it was, but the Buccaneers are hoping that a three-game sweep by the Saints is not also inevitable. The Saints are next obstacle in Tampa Bay's attempt to get back to the Super Bowl and be the first team ever to play the season's final game in its home stadium. Super Bowl LV is scheduled for February 7 at Raymond James Stadium, and a win over the Saints would put the Bucs within one game of making history. The last time Tampa Bay made it to the Divisional Round was 2002, when they defeated San Francisco, then upended Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game, shutting down the Vet on their way to victory in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Many Buccaneers also viewed it as inevitable that any path to their ultimate goal would have to go through the Saints, who have beaten them five times in a row. This year, that included the only two games that Tampa Bay has lost by more than three points, a 34-23 decision in the Superdome in Week One and a 38-3 Sunday Night drubbing in Tampa in Week Nine.
"I think they're really, really looking forward to it," said Head Coach Bruce Arians of the Bucs' third crack at the Saints. "Our guys are ready to play anybody, anywhere [on Sunday] night – that's for sure. We all kind of had a feeling we knew where we were going, so it was just get yourselves rested up. This extra day is going to help, so get rested up because you know it's going to be a physical, physical battle."
While the Buccaneers' Wild Card game in Washington was a matchup of a high-flying Bucs offense against an elite Football Team defense, the Divisional Round contest features two teams that have put up impressive numbers on both sides of the ball. Tampa Bay scored the third-most points in the league and also had the eighth-best scoring defense. The Saints counter with the fifth-ranked scoring offense and sixth-ranked scoring defense. Tampa Bay was first in the league in rushing defense; the Saints were fourth. New Orleans had the sixth-best pass rush in terms of sacks-per-pass-play; the Bucs were seventh. The Saints were fifth in red zone touchdown efficiency, the Buccaneers seventh. And so on.
"We just focus on ourselves, honestly," said Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin. "On any given Sunday, any team can win, so if we focus on ourselves, go out there and handle our business, I like us. I like where we stand, and I like our guys. I'm sure they're going to come out there, be fired up and be ready to go, but it's our job to come out, be competitive and put our best foot forward."
Tampa Bay's offense is peaking at the right time, averaging an astonishing 499.0 yards and 38.3 points per game over the past four weeks. With Antonio Brown becoming an increasingly valuable weapon every week, Chris Godwin hitting his stride in December and Mike Evans overcoming a scary Week 17 knee injury to dominate in the Wild Card round, the Bucs have the weapons to stress any defense, particularly when Brady is given time to pass. Of course, the Saints have done a good job of making sure that hasn't been the case in 2020, recording five of the 21 sacks and five of the 12 interceptions Brady suffered this season.
But, of course, the Brady-Brees matchup – perhaps the last one ever for the NFL's two all-time leaders in passing touchdowns and passing yards – will be the top headline for this game until the action begins. Including the postseason, Brady has 90,973 career passing yards. Brees is second in league history with 85,590. Brady's 656 career touchdown passes, including the playoffs, represent the only total higher than Brees' 607. Those two will eventually share space in the bronze bust room in Canton, but for at least one more time they'll share the field as one of their two teams wins a ticket to the NFC Championship Game.
GAME AND BROADCAST DETAILS
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-5) at New Orleans Saints (13-4)
Sunday, January 17, 6:40 p.m. ET
Mercedes-Benz Superdome (capacity: 74,295…approximately 3,000 fans will be in attendance)
New Orleans, Louisiana
TV Broadcast Team: Joe Buck (play-by-play), Troy Aikman (analyst), Erin Andrews (reporter), Tom Rinaldi (reporter)
Radio: 98Rock (WXTB, 97.9 FM), Flagship Station
Radio Broadcast Team: Gene Deckerhoff (play-by-play), Dave Moore (analyst), T.J. Rives (reporter)
ALL-TIME HEAD-TO-HEAD SERIES
The Buccaneers and Saints will meet in the postseason for the first time on Sunday evening, but the two franchises have a long history together. Recently, the Saints have taken control of the head-to-head series with a run of five straight wins that represents the Bucs' longest active losing streak against any team.
That streak includes Saints wins by scores of 34-23 in this year's season-opener and 38-3 in a Week Nine Sunday Night Football showcase. Those were the only two games the Buccaneers lost by more than three points this season. The two wins gave New Orleans a 37-21 edge in the all-time series.
The Buccaneers and Saints were frequent opponents in the '70s, '80s and '90s when the NFL's annual game schedule was heavily influenced by the previous year's standings. The Bucs and Saints became even more acquainted when the league changed its scheduling format to a divisional rotation in 2002, when a 32nd team was added and the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions. The Buccaneers left their old NFC Central haunt that year to join the new NFC South, which also drew in the Saints, Panthers and Falcons. That meant two games against the Saints every year, of course. The Bucs and Saints had split that season series for four straight years until New Orleans took control with a sweep last year.
The series was first contested in 1977. That initial meeting is famously the first win in franchise history for the Buccaneers, who left New Orleans on December 11 of that year with a 33-14 victory that snapped a franchise-opening 26-game losing streak. The Bucs still had a 3-2 edge in the series by the end of 1982, which would also prove to be the end of the franchise's first run of playoff seasons. The Saints took control of the series by winning six straight in the mid-'80s.
Since they became division mates, the Bucs and Saints have squared off 38 times, 24 of them going in favor of New Orleans. The two teams had a run of season splits from 2015-18, and it wasn't just a matter of the each club holding serve on home field advantage. The Buccaneers actually won at New Orleans in 2015 and 2018.
Weirdly, the Saints beat Tampa Bay twice in that first NFC South season in 2002, even though the Buccaneers would win the 2002 division title on their way to victory in Super Bowl XXXVII. Those two games represented half of the Bucs' losses that year. In a minor bit of payback, a 2-12 Bucs team beat a 13-1 Saints team in the penultimate week of the 2009 season, before the Saints would go on to win their first Super Bowl.
The Buccaneers and Saints opened the 2018 season together in the Superdome with a wild 48-40 shootout won by the visitors in the highest-scoring Week One game in NFL history. Mike Evans had seven catches for 147 yards and a touchdown in that game and Chris Godwin added 146 yards and two scores on five receptions. Unfortunately, that marks Tampa Bay's most recent win in the series.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Divisional Round Week practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
· Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians got his first NFL coaching job in Kansas City from 1989-92 but then returned to the college ranks in 1993. His second crack at the NFL would come in New Orleans, where he was the tight ends coach under Head Coach Jim Mora in 1996.
· Jameis Winston, in his first season with the Saints as a backup to quarterback Drew Brees, spent his first five seasons with the Buccaneers after being selected first overall in the 2015 NFL Draft. Winston left Tampa with the franchise's career records for pass attempts (2,548), completions (1,563), passing yards (19,737) and touchdown passes (121). He also set Buccaneers single-season records in all four of those categories in 2019, completing 380 of 626 pass attempts for 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns.
· New Saints LB Kwon Alexander, acquired via a trade with the 49ers, played his first four seasons in Tampa. A fourth-round draft pick in 2015, Alexander jumped immediately into the starting lineup as a rookie at middle linebacker and was a Pro Bowler by his third campaign. Alexander signed with San Francisco in free agency in 2019. He was recently placed on injured reserve by the Saints.
· Tampa Bay QB Ryan Griffin spent his first two seasons (2013-14) in New Orleans after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Tulane. He went back to training camp with the Saints in 2015 but ended up in Tampa on a waiver claim.
· The Bucs came close to losing TE Cameron Brate to the Saints in 2015. Brate had been released from Tampa Bay's practice squad on September 15 so the Bucs could add depth to a banged-up linebacker squad, but before they could bring Brate back he signed with New Orleans. Brate was actually on the Saints' sideline when the Buccaneers played in New Orleans the following weekend, but he didn't say in Louisiana long because Tampa Bay hastily re-signed him to their active roster.
· Saints DE Noah Spence, who is on the team's reserve/non-football injury list due to a torn ACL suffered in the offseason, was a second-round draft pick of the Buccaneers in 2016. Spence played in 34 games over three seasons in Tampa and recorded 6.5 sacks.
· New Orleans S D.J. Swearinger had a stop in Tampa in 2015. The Buccaneers claimed Swearinger off waivers from Houston in May of 2015 and he played in seven games for the team before being waived again in November.
· Fred McAfee, the Saints' Director of Player Engagement, played 16 years in the NFL as a running back and that included a very brief stop with the Buccaneers in 1999. McAfee appeared in one game for Tampa Bay that season.
· Saints Assistant Special Teams Coach Phil Galiano held the same post in Tampa under Head Coach Greg Schiano in 2012-13.
SENIOR COACHING STAFFS
- Head Coach Bruce Arians
- Assistant Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin
- Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles
- Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich
- Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong
- Head Coach Sean Payton
- Offensive Coordinator Pete Carmichael
- Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen
- Special Teams Coordinator Darren Rizzi
- Assistant Head Coach/Tight Ends Dan Campbell
KEY 2020 ROSTER ADDITIONS
- QB Tom Brady UFA)
- WR Antonio Brown (FA)
- RB Leonard Fournette (FA)
- TE Rob Gronkowski (T-NE)
- T Joe Haeg (UFA)
- WR Tyler Johnson (5th-round draft pick)
- RB LeSean McCoy (FA)
- DT Steve McLendon (T-NYJ)
- K Ryan Succop (FA)
- RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn (3rd-round draft pick)
- S Antoine Winfield Jr. (2nd-round draft pick)
- T Tristan Wirfs (1st-round draft pick)
- LB Alexander (T-SF – currently on injured reserve)
- LB Zack Baun (3rd-round draft pick)
- FB Michael Burton (UFA)
- T James Hurst (FA)
- S Malcolm Jenkins (UFA)
- RB Ty Montgomery (FA)
- C Cesar Ruiz (1st-round draft pick)
- WR Emmanuel Sanders (UFA)
- TE Adam Trautman (3rd-round draft pick)
- QB Jameis Winston (UFA)
ADDITIONAL 2020 CHANGES OF NOTE
· Though it is noted in the "Roster Additions" section above, it's worth further elaborating on the extremely dramatic change the Buccaneers made at the game's most important position. After five seasons, the team moved on from Jameis Winston, the first-overall pick in the 2015 draft, and filled the starting quarterback spot with the man many consider the G.O.A.T., former Patriot Tom Brady. Brady brings 20 years of experience and six Super Bowl championship rings to Tampa in one of the most notable free agent signings in NFL history. Brady's move to the Buccaneers also prompted former Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski to come out of retirement and he was promptly traded to Tampa Bay for a fourth-round draft pick. Another former teammate of Brady's, albeit for just one game, arrived in late October when the Buccaneers signed WR Antonio Brown.
· Tampa Bay debuted new uniforms in Week One in New Orleans. The uniforms are largely inspired by the ones the team wore during its Super Bowl era and overall from 1997 through 2013. Some elements of the uniforms introduced in 2014 remain, such as the sharper, more detailed skull-and-crossed-swords logo and the larger flag on the helmet (though not as large as before). The uniforms debuting in 2020 also include an all-pewter version that is completely unique in team and NFL history and was worn for the first time in Denver in Week Three.
· The Buccaneers have two new additions to their coaching staff in 2020: Defensive/Special Teams Assistant Keith Tandy and Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach Cory Bichey. Tandy worked at the high school and college levels in 2019, the latter at his alma mater of West Virginia, but he begins his NFL coaching career with the same team that drafted him in 2012. Tandy spent six seasons in Tampa as a safety and special teams standout before finishing his playing career in Atlanta in 2018. Bichey comes to the Buccaneers from Mississippi State University, where he previously worked under current Buccaneers Head Strength & Conditioning Coach Anthony Piroli.
· The Buccaneers used their franchise tag during the 2020 offseason for the first time in eight years. That tag was employed to retain outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, who went from a rotational reserve in Denver to the NFL's 2019 sack leader after signing with the Bucs as an unrestricted free agent. Barrett's 19.5 sacks in his first year with the Buccaneers broke Warren Sapp's single-season franchise record and made him one of the team's top priorities in the offseason. Barrett and the Bucs were unable to reach agreement on a long-term deal during the 2020 offseason, in part due to the uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, so Barrett will play on the tag's one-year contract this fall.
· The Buccaneers lost one of their key defensive players in Week Five when third-year defensive lineman Vita Vea suffered a broken leg and was placed on injured reserve, ending his season. Vea recorded 2.0 sacks through the first five games and was a key member of the team's league-leading run defense.
· Drew Brees was without his top receiver for a good portion of the season. Wide receiver Michael Thomas, who averaged 117.5 receptions per season during his first four years in the NFL, did not play for eight weeks after suffering an ankle injury in the season opener against Tampa Bay. He then missed three games in December with another injury and finished the season with just 40 catches for 438 yards and no touchdowns. However, that is no longer an issue for Brees and the Saints, as Thomas returned for the start of the playoffs and had five catches for 73 yards and a score against Chicago.
· Mike Nolan, who served as the Saints' linebackers coach for the past three seasons, left in the offseason to take the offensive coordinator job in Dallas. To fill Nolan's spot, the Saints promoted Michael Hodges, who had been promoted from defensive assistant to assistant linebackers coach in 2019. New Orleans also added Cory Robinson as a defensive assistant; Robinson had previously served a training camp internship with the Saints in 2019.
· Though their starter remains the same, the Saints also made several headlines at the quarterback position in the offseason. After Teddy Bridgewater signed with Carolina to replace Cam Newton as the Panthers' starter, the Saints signed former Buccaneer Jameis Winston to a one-year deal. Winston will have a chance to be the primary backup to Drew Brees, as Bridgewater was last year, but New Orleans is likely to continue to keep three quarterbacks active on game days. That's because the third one, Taysom Hill, is really a Swiss Army knife of an offensive weapon who has lined up at quarterback, running back, tight end and wide receiver. Perhaps portending an even larger role in the offense in 2020 for Hill, the Saints re-signed him in the offseason to a lucrative two-year contract extension. Brees also signed a new two-year contract in March, though that has become a relatively routine transaction in New Orleans.
· The Saints surprised some pundits in May when they released starting right guard Larry Warford, who was coming off his third straight Pro Bowl campaign. However, the team had used a first-round pick on Michigan center Cesar Ruiz, who could step right in at Warford's spot. If he does, the Saints' excellent offensive line would be comprised completely of players the team has drafted in the first three rounds since 2013, including first-rounders Ruiz, center Erik McCoy and left guard Andrus Peat.
· The Saints went back to the future in their secondary. With starting safety Vonn Bell leaving for Cincinnati via free agency, the team re-signed Malcolm Jenkins, who left the Philadelphia Eagles after six seasons and three Pro Bowls. Jenkins returns to his first NFL home, as he started for the Saints for most of his first five seasons (2009-13). The Saints also saw cornerback Eli Apple, who started 15 games last year after coming over from the Giants in a 2018 midseason trade, leave for the Panthers. Apple could be replaced in the starting lineup by another Jenkins and another former Giant, as Janoris Jenkins arrived as a waiver claim in mid-December of last year.
Third Time's an Alarm – The Buccaneers have been here before. In 1997, just two years after Malcolm Glazer purchased the franchise, the Bucs went back to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years after finishing 10-6. That was good for second place in the NFC Central behind the 13-3 Green Bay Packers, who had beaten them twice during the regular season. Tampa Bay won a Wild Card game against Detroit and then had to go back to Green Bay in the Divisional Round, eventually falling 21-7. Green Bay went on to the Super Bowl. Heading into the showdown in Lambeau, Green Bay had beaten Tampa Bay four straight times. The 2020 Bucs have taken a similar path to the Divisional Round, finishing second in the NFC South with an 11-5 record, with two of those losses coming against the Saints. That has the Buccaneers back in the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. After winning at Washington in the Wild Card round, the Bucs are now headed back to New Orleans. This time, they hope the results are different and that path continues on to the NFC Championship Game. Essentially, the Saints are the new Green Bay hurdle for the Tampa Bay franchise; the Bucs became a playoff caliber team in the latter half of the '90s but didn't beat Green Bay until 1998. After that, they made it to the NFC Championship Game in 1999 and won the Super Bowl in 2002. This time around, the Buccaneers hope to accelerate that process by overcoming that hurdle this weekend. One main difference: the quarterback matchup this time around is historic. In the 1997 playoffs, the Packers were led by future Hall of Famer while the Bucs' offense had Trent Dilfer at the helm. Dilfer went to the Pro Bowl that season and won a Super Bowl as a starter in Baltimore as part of a fine NFL career, but of course he did not end up in Canton. This time, it's Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees, Part III. Brady and Brees are the two most prolific passers in NFL history and, despite the fact that this is the first postseason matchup ever between two quarterbacks older than 40, both are still among the best in the game. The Bucs are hoping Brady's unparalleled success in the playoffs – including a league-record six Super Bowl titles – continues with his new team.
Stopping the Big Three – Brady overtook Brees for the NFL's career touchdown lead this season, in part because Brees missed four games due to broken ribs. Brady finished the season with 4,633 passing yards and 40 touchdown tosses, and he has been red hot over the past month. Brees had 2,942 yards and 24 touchdowns but, in addition to his own missed time, top wideout Michael Thomas only played in seven games and superstar running back Alvin Kamara missed the last game of the season while on the COVID list. Brees, Kamara and Thomas – all Pro Bowlers with huge numbers in 2019 – saw very little time on the field together during the regular season. But now the whole gang is back together. Thomas came off injured reserve in time for the playoffs, Kamara was re-activated after missing that one game and Brees has been back at the Saints' helm for the last five games. Against Chicago in the Wild Card round, Brees threw for 265 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 107.3 passer rating; Thomas caught five passes for 73 yards and his first touchdown of the season; and Kamara racked up 116 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown, his 22nd score of 2020. Can the Bucs keep the Saints' offense in check now that it is fully staffed once again? Tampa Bay's defense hopes to pressure Brees into mistakes but he was only sacked once in each of the previous two meetings and was able to throw six touchdown passes against no interceptions. With Kamara and Thomas back at his disposal, Brees has his two best weapons for getting rid of the ball quickly and letting those playmakers rack up yardage after the catch. However, Carlton Davis demonstrated that he's capable of shutting Thomas down in the season opener and the Bucs only allowed Kamara an average of 58.0 yards from scrimmage in the previous two meetings. The Buccaneers aren't likely to completely shut the Saints down and may end up in a shootout between two of the five highest-scoring teams in the league, but as much as they can contain the Saints' Big Three will have a lot to do with the final outcome.
Emotional Strength – After their surprising 38-3 blowout win at Raymond James Stadium in Week Nine, the Saints went viral for their exuberant dance party in the postgame locker room. It was hard to blame them for their excitement after a lopsided win that essentially locked down the NFC South title in the long run, and that celebration was of little consequence to the Buccaneers. What the Bucs may have to deal with is some talk on the field this Sunday. Chicago saw wide receiver Anthony Miller tossed from the Wild Card game after he was goaded into throwing a punch by some Saints trash-talking. Bruce Arians took note and didn't wait long to caution his team to avoid that sort of reaction if the situation arises on Sunday, saying in his fir: "I don't think there's any more swag than our offense has – I guarantee that. You can't get caught up in the finger pointing and the trash talking – you've got to play football. The Bears' young receiver got caught up in it and got thrown out of the game. It's going to happen – that's who they are. You just have to deal with it and win your one-on-one matchups. They have a ton of swagger and they should." The Saints, of course, are not the only team that has some players prone to trash-talking; the Buccaneers certainly do, too, and both sides have to know how to handle it. It's just a little bit harder to contain one's emotions when the stakes are so much higher in the playoffs.
500 Club – Can Tom Brady and the Bucs' offense stay on their insane hot streak? The Saints' defense was very good this season at putting pressure on Brady and causing turnovers, but it has been two months since the last meeting and the Bucs' attack has gone to a new level since. Even on the road in Washington against a defense that actually tops the Saints in most category rankings, the Bucs racked up 507 yards and 31 points, only stumbling in the red zone a few times. That yardage total marks just the 15th time in 45 seasons, playoffs included, that the Buccaneers have topped 500 yards in a game…three of them have occurred in the last eight games, with another 485-yard game in that stretch. Since Week 15 of the regular season the Bucs' offense has averaged an incredible 499.0 yards per game. Since losing to New Orleans, 38-3, in Week Nine, Tampa Bay has scored an average of 34.1 points per game. Can they keep that going in the Superdome this Sunday? Arians says it comes down to giving Brady better protection and eliminating turnovers. "They're a good defense," Arians elaborated. "We've got to block them better. And I think we know what we're doing a whole lot better now than we did then. We've just gotten better and better. I think it was just a matter of continually [being] a work in progress. Things were growing each and every week and then after the bye everything kind of solidified itself."
The Ultimate Ratio – The Buccaneers have only had to defend 12 drives this season that started on their side of the 50-yard line, a huge improvement over last year, when that number was 29. However, five of those 12 short drives came in the two games against the Saints, in part due to six giveaways by the Bucs' offense. Tampa Bay was +8 in turnover ratio in 2020, ranking sixth, just behind the Saints, who were +9 and tied for third. However, in their two games against the Saints, the Bucs were -4 in the turnover department and, moreover, -31 in points scored off turnovers. Since Tampa Bay last played New Orleans it has only committed seven turnovers in eight games, including only two in the last five games. Continuing that trend through this Sunday's contest would give the Buccaneers a much better chance to advance further in the playoffs. Said Arians: "It's helped a bunch. The number of short fields we put them in last year, just to start ballgames – if we didn't give up a touchdown we gave up an interception that was in the plus-20 area. That part has helped. Our field-position starts on defense are dramatically changed."
1. Buccaneers WR Mike Evans vs. Saints CB Marshon Lattimore
Earlier in the week, Arians said that the game on Sunday could come down to "one-on-one battles of guys who know each other. Who's going to make those game-changing plays in this game?" There is no better illustration for Arians' point than Evans vs. Lattimore, a heated battle that has been waging since the Saints cornerback hit the ground running as a standout rookie in 2017. The Saints aren't shy about letting Lattimore shadow Evans, and that has led to a back-and-forth battle with wins on both sides. For instance, Evans had 233 yards and a touchdown on 11 catches in his two games against the Saints in 2017, but his only catch in the 2020 season opener at New Orleans was a two-yard touchdown grab. As a more recent example of what Lattimore can do if he's assigned to one specific receiver, the Saints put him on Minnesota's Justin Jefferson on 35 of the rookie's 41 routes in Week 16 and Jefferson finished with just three receptions for 44 yards on seven targets. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Lattimore covered Evans on 48 of his 65 routes run while Lattimore was in the game (he left the second one early due to injury) during the first two Bucs-Saints games this season. If Lattimore takes on that challenge again Sunday he'll be facing a Mike Evans who is playing some of the best football of his career right now and is likely doubly inspired by his first taste of the playoffs after seven seasons. In the last 13 quarters that Evans has been on the field he's caught 25 passes for 456 yards (18.2 avg.) and two touchdowns. That's not 16 quarters because he sustained a knee injury in the first quarter of the Week 17 game against Atlanta that initially looked like it would put his playoff debut in serious jeopardy. Evans barely practiced last week but still managed to play 62 of 74 snaps and lead all players with 119 receiving yards on six catches.
2. Saints RB Alvin Kamara vs. Buccaneers ILB Devin White
Kamara's 2020 stats are mind-boggling. The fourth-year back led the Saints with a career-high 932 rushing yards, averaging 5.0 yards per tote, and also paced the team with 83 catches for 756 yards. He also scored an incredible 21 touchdowns and was the only non-kicker to finish in the top 10 in the NFL's points-scored rankings. What Drew Brees and the Saints offense does so well is get the ball into Kamara's hands with a chance for him to use his incredible elusiveness to pile on yards after the catch. Kamara had 756 receiving yards during the regular season and, remarkably, almost all of them – 731, to be exact – came after the catch. That seemingly impossible combination of numbers takes into account that some screen passes have negative yards at the catch but still shows how dangerous the short passing game through Kamara is for the Saints. The Buccaneers have actually fared pretty well against the Saints' top offensive weapon this season, holding him to 67 yards from scrimmage in Week One and 49 in Week Nine, but Kamara did find the end zone three times in those contests. Tampa Bay's defense is fortunate to be getting back one of the players most likely to have a shot at containing Kamara, as White was activated from the COVID list on Monday after missing the previous two contests. White has the kind of speed and sideline-to-sideline range that make him a good match for a playmaker of Kamara's level and he led the Buccaneers by a good margin with 140 tackles despite sitting out in Week 17. White also had 9.0 sacks on the season and the Buccaneers could try to use his pass-rushing talents to take Drew Brees out of his comfort zone. According to Next Gen Stats, White had the second-best pressure rate (18.6%) among all players in the NFL who came at the quarterback at least 100 times. White sometimes makes his backfield incursions when he sees the running back stay in as a pass protector, and if Kamara does that, it will be another way in which this matchup has a chance to impact the game's outcome.
3. Buccaneers G Aaron Stinnie vs. Saints DT Sheldon Rankins
Stinnie is about to step into the spotlight in a big way. The third-year pro has never started an NFL game, regular season or postseason, and has played a total of 30 offensive snaps. Twenty-five of those came late in the Bucs' 47-7 dismantling of the Detroit Lions in Week 16. According to Arians, Stinnie is ticketed for a much bigger role on Sunday night. While the Bucs got past Washington in the Wild Card round they did suffer a significant loss, with starting right guard Alex Cappa sustaining a fractured ankle. Arians said on Monday that Stinnie would step in for Cappa against the Saints. The former undrafted free agent out of James Madison came to the Buccaneers last November as a waiver claim after he was let go by the Tennessee Titans and has largely been inactive or a special teams participant since. Now he'll be tasked with helping the Bucs' offensive line continue a late-season hot streak that has very frequently given Tom Brady a clean pocket from which to put up enormous numbers. One of Stinnie's duties will be containing Rankins, who had a sack and two of the Saints' three quarterback hits on Chicago's Mitchell Trubisky in the Wild Card round. Rankins most common spot at the snap is lined up the left of the center on the Saints' defensive front, which would put him in Stinnie's space quite a bit. In addition to his pass-rushing capabilities, Rankins is a strong run defender who helped the Saints hold David Montgomery and a hot Bears rushing attack to just 48 yards on 19 carries. Overall, New Orleans was fourth against the run in 2020, both in terms of yards allowed per game (93.9) and yards allowed per carry (3.85). Rankins carries a lot of motivation into this season's playoff run. Two years ago, he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon early in the Saints' first postseason game and was done for the season, and last year he was on injured reserve when the postseason began. This time he has a chance to be a difference-maker in the playoffs and he's off to a good start.
4. Saints WR Deonte Harris vs. Buccaneers CB Sean Murphy-Bunting
The return of Michael Thomas is definitely a boon for the Saints' passing attack, and that was evident in the Wild Card win over Chicago. What was also evident in that game, though, is that speedy kick returner Deonte Harris could also be a very real threat in the passing attack. That was definitely on Arians' mind as the week began. Said the Bucs' head coach when asked about Thomas: "He's a heck of a player, [but] the guy that scares me is Deonte Harris. He's really, really fast and when he was in there, it's a different ballgame. Mike is a bruiser and a chain-mover, but Deonte Harris can go to the house quick." Harris didn't go to the house last weekend but he did lead the Saints with seven catches for 83 yards and showed he could turn a quick pass into a big gain. That was easily the most prolific receiving game of Harris's first two seasons, as he had never before tallied more than four catches or 46 yards in a single contest, but it could be a sign that the Saints are figuring out new ways to put the diminutive receiver's speed and quickness to good use. Harris took 40% of his snaps during the regular season in the slot and also lined up in there six times in last week's win over Chicago. When that happens and the Buccaneers are in man-to-man defense, he will largely be the responsibility of Murphy-Bunting, who celebrated his first crack at the playoffs with an interception in the Wild Card win at Washington. The second-year corner has had some ups and downs in 2020, as he has acknowledged, but he's played well of late and has made a couple critical turnovers down the stretch and in the playoffs. Murphy-Bunting has the nimble feet and quick-twitch moves to excel in the slot and hang with shifty players like Harris. In addition, the two could even do battle on special teams Sunday. Harris is the Saints' primary kickoff and punt returner, averaging 27.3 yards per runback on the former and 12.2 on the latter. He made it to the Pro Bowl as a return man in his rookie season in 2019. Murphy-Bunting is tied for third on the Bucs' coverage unit with three special teams tackles.
DNP: Did not participate in practice
LP: Limited participation in practice
FP: Full participation in practice
NL: Not listed
· S Andrew Adams (not injury related) – WEDS: NL; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Questionable.
· G Alex Cappa (ankle) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP. Placed on injured reserve on Friday.
· CB Carlton Davis (groin) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· WR Mike Evans (knee) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Not listed.
· WR Chris Godwin (hip/quad) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Not listed.
· RB Ronald Jones (quad/finger) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: LP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Questionable.
· DL Jeremiah Ledbetter (calf) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.
· G Ali Marpet (pectoral) – WEDS: NL; THURS: NL; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· RB LeSean McCoy (illness) – WEDS: FP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· OLB Jason Pierre-Paul (knee) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Not listed.
· DL Ndamukong Suh (not injury related) – WEDS: NL; THURS: NL; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Not listed.
· S Jordan Whitehead (knee) – WEDS: NL; THURS: NL; FRI: LP. Game Status: Questionable.
· T Terron Armstead (elbow) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· OL Will Clapp (not injury related) – WEDS: NL; THURS: NL; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Questionable.
· TE Jared Cook (back) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· DE Trey Hendrickson (neck) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· QB Taysom Hill (knee) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Questionable.
· RB Latavius Murray (quad) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Questionable.
· CB Patrick Robinson (hamstring) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.
Domed stadium. Evening outdoor forecast: Overcast with scattered showers, low of 42, 37% chance of rain, 72% humidity, winds out of the NNW at 5-10 mph.
Head referee: Shawn Hochuli (7 seasons, 3 as referee)
· Favorite: Saints (-3.0)
· Over/Under: 51.5
INDIVIDUAL STAT LEADERS
Buccaneers (regular season)-
Points Scored: K Ryan Succop, 136
Touchdowns: WR Mike Evans, 13
Passing Yards: QB Tom Brady, 4,633
Passer Rating: QB Tom Brady, 102.2
Rushing Yards: RB Ronald Jones, 978
Receptions: WR Mike Evans, 70
Receiving Yards: WR Mike Evans, 1,006
Interceptions: CB Carlton Davis, 4
Sacks: OLB Jason Pierre-Paul, 9.5
Tackles: ILB Devin White, 140
Saints (regular season)-
Points Scored: K Wil Lutz, 126
Touchdowns: RB Alvin Kamara, 21
Passing Yards: QB Drew Brees, 2,942
Passer Rating: QB Drew Brees, 106.4
Rushing Yards: RB Alvin Kamara, 932
Receptions: RB Alvin Kamara, 83
Receiving Yards: RB Alvin Kamara, 756
Interceptions: CB Janoris Jenkins/S Malcolm Jenkins/S Marcus Williams, 3
Sacks: DE Trey Hendrickson, 13.5
Tackles: LB Demario Davis, 119
TEAM STAT RANKINGS
Buccaneers (regular season)-
Scoring Offense: 3rd (30.8 ppg)
Total Offense: 7th (384.1 ypg)
Passing Offense: 2nd (289.1 ypg)
Rushing Offense: t-28th (94.9 ypg)
First Downs Per Game: t-10th (22.8)
Third-Down Pct.: 11th (43.5%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 2nd (3.51%)
Red Zone TD Pct.: 7th (68.9%)
Scoring Defense: 8th (22.2 ppg)
Total Defense: 6th (327.1 ypg)
Passing Defense: 21st (246.6 ypg)
Rushing Defense: 1st (80.6 ypg)
First Downs Allowed Per Game: 5th (19.9)
Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 14th (40.0%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 7th (7.78%)
Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 20th (62.8%)
Turnover Margin: 6th (+8)
Saints (regular season)-
Scoring Offense: 5th (30.1 ppg)
Total Offense: 12th (376.4 ypg)
Passing Offense: 19th (234.9 ypg)
Rushing Offense: 6th (141.6 ypg)
First Downs Per Game: 8th (22.9)
Third-Down Pct.: 8th (44.7%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 13th (5.56%)
Red Zone TD Pct.: 5th (72.1%)
Scoring Defense: 6th (21.1 ppg)
Total Defense: 4th (310.9 ypg)
Passing Defense: 5th (217.0 ypg)
Rushing Defense: 4th (93.9 ypg)
First Downs Allowed Per Game: 6th (20.0)
Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 9th (38.2%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 6th (8.08%)
Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 29th (68.0%)
Turnover Margin: t-3rd (+9)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
· TE Rob Gronkowski has already recorded an incredible 12 touchdown catches in his playoff career. That is tied with John Stallworth for the second most postseason scores in NFL history, so one more on Sunday would put Gronkowski alone in second place. He has a ways to go to catch the record, though, as Jerry Rice scored 22 times in the playoffs.
· Gronkowski has also recorded four 100-yard receiving games in the playoffs, tying Jordan Reed for the most by a tight end in league history. One more and Gronkowski will stand alone.
· Not to be outdone, WR Antonio Brown has five 100-yard receiving games in postseason play. If he gets another one on Sunday he will tie Julian Edelman and Michael Irvin for the second most by any player in league annals.
· Brown also has 886 career postseason receiving yards, the third-most among active players. He needs 57 more to pass Larry Fitzgerald (942) for the second-most postseason receiving yards among active players.
· DL Ndamukong Suh has 5.0 career postseason sacks. If he gets one more against New Orleans he will tie J.J. Watt for the third-most playoff sacks among active NFL players.
· WR Mike Evans set a Buccaneers single-game playoff record with 119 receiving yards in the win at Washington on Saturday. If he gets 79 more yards in Sunday's game he will already be second on the club's career postseason receiving yardage chart, surpassing Jimmie Giles, Michael Pittman, Mike Alstott, Warrick Dunn and Joe Jurevicius in the process.
· Head Coach Bruce Arians on Tom Brady getting rid of the ball more quickly and the offense flourishing since the last meeting with New Orleans in Week Nine, which was also Antonio Brown's first game with the Bucs: "The protection has been great. I think knowing his receivers inside and out now – since Week 9, A.B. had just gotten here – he knows where he's going a lot faster than he did before because it was a growing process. It was a normal growing process."
· Wide receiver Chris Godwin on how the Buccaneers can beat a Saints team that has already beaten them twice this year: "We just focus on ourselves, honestly. On any given Sunday, any team can win, so if we focus on ourselves, go out there and handle our business, I like us. I like where we stand and I like our guys. I'm sure they're going to come out there, be fired up and be ready to go, but it's our job to come out, be competitive and put our best foot forward."
· Wide receiver Mike Evans on if the Saints are currently the Bucs' biggest rival: "It's definitely a great rivalry. When we play each other, [there] is a lot of emotion, a lot of physicality. As players, we love it – we love this rivalry. I know the fans love it. I would say it is our biggest rivalry."
· Running back Leonard Fournette on what the Bucs can do differently in their third meeting with the Saints: "Well, we know they've been together for a long time, so their chemistry is great, number one. I think we're getting there as a whole [with] our team on offense. We just have to find ways to execute and not shoot ourselves in the foot with the small penalties. It's taking it play by play. It's going to be a dog fight. They've been here before. It's our first time together – our first time being here – so we've got to come with our 'A' game and fight."
· Inside linebacker Devin White on trying to slow down the Saints' offense: "We've got to stay sound in the front with our two tackles without letting them push the pocket and let the outside guys do what they've got to do. I think the thing that [can] throw Drew Brees off is we've just got to be physical with the receivers, tight ends and the running backs. Don't let them play pitch and catch – I think that will be the biggest 'it factor' for us. If we come out physical and we get our hands on those guys, I think we'll do a great job."