The last time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced the New Orleans Saints, at the Superdome in Week Eight, Tom Brady threw for 375 yards and four touchdowns, but he was also picked off twice, one of them returned for a touchdown to clinch a 36-27 Saints win. Since joining the Buccaneers in 2020, Brady has a regular-season passer rating of 77.5 against New Orleans; it's 105.9 against every other team. As a team, the Bucs have lost six straight regular-season games to the Saints, a streak that stretches to before Brady's arrival.
The reason for this, says Brady, isn't that the Saints have some kind of mental hold on the Buccaneers. It's simply that the Saints are a very good and well-coached team, and this year that is particularly true on defense. Tampa Bay has a great offense, obviously, ranking first in the NFL in points, yards and passing yards, but they haven't necessarily played to their best capabilities when facing the Saints.
"They're just a great team, so at the end of the day you've got to play great to beat great teams," said Brady, as the Buccaneers prepare for their rematch with New Orleans on Sunday night. "They've got a great, powerful front, they've played together a long time, it's been one of the top defenses in the league. [Defensive Coordinator] Dennis Allen does a great job preparing those guys. They're just a very fundamentally sound defense, they make you earn it."
Brady noted that the Saints have had to work around a rash of injuries on both sides of the ball, which probably is a significant part of the reason they have slid to 6-7 after a 5-2 start. But with players like Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport and Payton Turner returning recently or expected back this week from injuries or COVID bouts, the Saints are close to full strength on the defensive side of the ball now. Brady is expecting the same sort of challenges that defense always presents, which will force the Bucs' offense to be at the top of its game, and to stay there for four quarters.
"We've got to make the right throws, we've got to make the right catches, we've got to make the right reads in the run game," said Brady. "You can't have penalties and put yourself behind the sticks. You've got to convert on third down. I think they're the top team in the red area so they're very difficult to score points against. It's a tough defense."
The Saints do in fact have the NFL's top-ranked red zone defense, allowing only 43.6% of opposing drives inside their 20 to finish in the end zone. Their pressure rate on opposing quarterbacks is down from where it was last year, when the Saints finished sixth in sacks per pass play, but that can largely be attributed to that aforementioned rash of injuries. New Orleans has picked off 14 passes and ranks seventh in interception rate on defense. And the true strength of that defense may actually be in the middle, where linebacker Demario Davis roams with playmaking ferocity.
It is this defense, and the other challenges that the Saints present that is occupying the Bucs' minds this week, rather than the possibility of clinching a division title. The 10-3 Buccaneers would snap New Orleans' four-season hold on the NFC South crown and win their first division title since 2007 if they are able to end the Saints' winning streak in their head-to-head series.
"Obviously we're all happy we're 10-3, but 11-3 is a lot better than 10-3," said Brady. "We're going to try to get to 11-3 against a team that's obviously given us a lot of problems. Always a tough team to play – for as long as I can remember playing football this is a team that is prepared, they're tough, physical, they've got a lot of threats on the defensive side of the ball, a lot of veteran players. They've got a good rush, great linebackers – Demario Davis is one of the great linebackers in the NFL and it's unbelievable how he plays the game. And in the secondary, Marshon [Lattimore] and Marcus [Williams] and Malcolm [Jenkins], [Bradley] Roby's a phenomenal player, [Paulson] Adebo's a great player – they've got players all over the field.
"We've got to win this game because it's the one that's front of us, and it's a tough game. You never win two games in a week, you never lose two games in a week. You've got to win this one game, and it's a tough game. If we make it that far, we'll figure out how to make it after Week 18, now. I still can't believe that."