As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prepare to head to the Big Easy for a Week 17 showdown with the New Orleans Saints, it's hard not to think back to a similar trip almost exactly a year ago. In Week 16 of the 2009 season, the then 2-12 Buccaneers shocked the NFL with a 20-17 overtime victory in the Superdome over the 13-1 and headed-to-the-Super-Bowl Saints.
Raheem Morris, who got the "signature win" (the favorite term of 2010) of his first year at the Bucs' helm on that afternoon, insists that last year's victory has no bearing on the game the Buccaneers and Saints will play in the Superdome this Sunday, and of course he's right.
The Saints' starting lineup may be quite similar to what it is a year ago, but the Buccaneers have thoroughly revamped their roster, even since the two teams last met in October. There are different injuries to contend with, new offensive and defensive emphases on display, greater expectations for the Buccaneers and, most importantly, much more at stake. Tampa Bay got its third win in New Orleans a year ago; this time around they could reach 10 and, if everything else falls right, head into the playoffs far more quickly than any analysts expected.
But if last year's win in New Orleans is instructive in any way, it's in emphasizing the "any given Sunday" nature of the NFL. The Bucs won't be favored going into the Superdome, but then neither were they expected to challenge double-digit wins in 2010. For that matter, the Saints were supposed to hand Atlanta the division title this past Monday night and failed to oblige, and the rare Tuesday night game that followed in Philadelphia had an even more unexpected outcome.
In other words, you can forgive the Buccaneers for truly believing they can capture that 10th win on Sunday.
"This is the National Football League," said Morris. "You go out and play every game differently. That's why I laugh at the talk about strength of opponents and who you play. I watched that game [Tuesday] night. Two weeks ago, the Eagles looked unbeatable versus anybody, and [that] night the Vikings went out and gave their best effort. They played smart, fast, hard and consistent and they won the football game. The NFL is about that weekend, and it's a lot of fun."
The Saints beat the Buccaneers in Week Six, 31-6, as Drew Brees and company put on the type of offensive show they are capable of. The Bucs couldn't answer on that day, or sufficiently slow New Orleans down, but they seem to be better equipped heading into the rematch. Not only is Josh Freeman playing at a very high level – in Brees' strata, if you will – but Tampa Bay's running game is far stronger in December than it was in October. With rookie LeGarrette Blount chasing down 1,000 yards, the Bucs are capable of displaying a very balanced attack this time.
"He's certainly provided us with a blunt force – no pun intended – on first down," said Morris. "He's gone out there and been our battering ram, and a guy that gets to the open field and creates big plays for us in the running game. Him tagging up with Cadillac [Williams] has been awesome for us. It's worked out well and given us some rushing numbers we're not used to seeing around here."
The Bucs may or may not be the only team with something at stake in Sunday's game. The Saints could still win the NFC South with a victory and a concurrent Atlanta loss at home to the 2-13 Carolina Panthers (any given Sunday, anyone?). Since both games will be happening at the same time, the out-of-town scoreboard could at some point take away a portion of the Saints' motivation. Theoretically, at least. Morris doesn't really expect that to happen, no matter what the Falcons do.
"I don't think Sean Payton goes into any game lightly," said Morris of his coaching counterpart. "I don't think that's in his makeup or his nature. He's going to try to cut us, and cut us deep. It's a division foe. When we're in between the lines we definitely don't like each other. We'll go out there and compete at the highest level, I guarantee you that."
Will the Bucs get the win and the help they need to grab a playoff berth? We'll find out on Sunday. In the meantime, let's take a closer look at this weekend's matchup:
Tampa Bay: The Bucs will be without starting FB Earnest Graham, who is week-to-week with a neck injury. Of course, WR Arrelious Benn was lost to injured reserve this week but the team might get WR Sammie Stroughter back from the hamstring injury that kept him out of the last game.
New Orleans: The Saints recently got RBs Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush back from long-term injuries, but they've been without the man who took their place in the middle of the season, Chris Ivory, due to a hamstring ailment. Ivory was limited in practice to begin the week.
- Mike Williams, WR, Buccaneers. Well, there has been no "rookie wall" for this NFL newcomer. Williams is finishing off his incredible season on a strong note and putting himself firmly in the running for Rookie of the Year. Over the Bucs' last four games, Williams has caught 16 passes for 223 yards and, most importantly, four touchdowns. He's coming off his first career two-TD game last weekend.
- Geno Hayes, LB, Buccaneers. We could put Hayes in the Hot section based solely on his recent pass-rushing; three weeks ago he had three career sacks, and now he has six, including two last week against Seattle. But we don't want to lose sight of how strong Hayes has been in pass coverage, either. He has broken up at least one pass in four straight games, a nice stat for a linebacker, and all eight of his passes defensed this year have come in the last nine contests.
- Jonathan Vilma, LB, Saints. Brees and Co. get most of the headlines, but New Orleans' defense ranks fifth in the NFL in yards allowed and sixth in points allowed. Vilma's presence in the middle is a big reason why, and he has been all over the field in recent weeks. Over the Saints' last five games, Vilma has racked up 43 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. Vilma already has a career-high four sacks this season, nearly half of his career total.
- Pierre Thomas, RB, Saints. This breaks from our usual "Who's Hot" trend a bit because we're basing it on a single game. But the Saints clearly missed Thomas as he was out for 10 straight games due to injury in the middle of the season. Thomas didn't have a huge impact in his first two games back, either, but he looked like he was back in form against Atlanta on Monday night, running for 63 yards and a score and catching seven passes for 39 more yards.
- Tim Crowder, DE, Buccaneers. Crowder moved into the starting lineup in Week 10 against Carolina and two weeks later recorded his third sack of the season at Baltimore. Crowder hasn't dropped an opposing QB in the past four weeks, however, though he continues his very strong play against the run. Crowder has also been disrupting passing lanes recently, knocking down three passes in the last three games.
- Donald Penn, T, Buccaneers. We're taking a little liberty with the "Due" concept on this one, because what Penn is due is a little more recognition. Penn was named a Pro Bowl alternate on Tuesday, but admitted to being disappointed that he didn't make the roster outright. It's hard to argue with the fifth-year lineman, who has been one of the most dominant linemen in the league this year. Penn is the only member of the Bucs' rather effective O-Line who has started every game this year.
- Jeremy Shockey, TE, Saints. In his three seasons as a Saint, Shockey has yet to hit the average of 62 catches a season he established in six years with the Giants. However, he could be a serious threat to the Bucs' pass defense if he regains his form from the first half of the season. Over the Saints' last seven games, two of which he missed, Shockey has just 11 catches for 101 yards and one touchdown.
- Tracy Porter, CB, Saint. Last year's playoff hero, Porter clinched both the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl with memorable interceptions. He also led the Saints' cornerbacks during the regular season with four picks, and he got another one in Week Two of this season. That has proved to be Porter's last interception of the 2010 campaign, however, and he has just two passes defensed over his last seven outings.
- Turnovers are down in Buccaneer games of late…way down. In fact, neither team has turned the ball over once in the Bucs' last two games, and that's the first time that has happened in consecutive games in franchise history. Half of that story is good for the Buccaneers, obviously. They have now had six games in 2010 in which they did not turn the ball over, the most in any season in the team's 35 years.
- There has been a recent increase in scoring against the Buccaneers in the fourth quarter, and that's not a particularly welcome trend. Still, the fourth-quarter numbers over the last four games only look bad in comparison to how ridiculously stingy the team had been in the previous 11. Through those first 11 games, the Bucs allowed 29 fourth-period points, or 2.6 per game. In the last four, they've allowed another 29, or 7.3 per game.
- Opposing teams just don't get to the quarterback since Drew Brees arrived in 2006, and that trend has continued in 2010. Since Brees' arrival, New Orleans ranks second in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed, with 95 to the Colts' 80. This year, it's more of the same for a team with two Pro Bowl linemen (Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks), as the Saints rank fourth in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed at 23.
- Though it probably doesn't offer opposing D-coordinators much solace, the Saints' offense has been a bit less explosive of late. The Saints are averaging 5.6 yards per play in 2010, the eighth-best mark in the league. Only four times in their first 12 games did they average less than 5.1 yards per play in a game. However, they have failed to hit that mark for three straight games heading into Week 17, going for 4.9, 4.3 and 5.0 against the Rams, Ravens and Falcons.
Defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson signed with the defending champs as a free agent this past spring, but not before he put himself on the map in Tampa. After five solid but unremarkable seasons in Kansas City, Wilkerson came to Tampa in 2008 and got a chance to play extensively on defense. In just two seasons with the Bucs he recorded 11 sacks after having just one in his five seasons with the Chiefs. Known as a hard-worker and a positive influence in the locker room, Wilkerson finished the 2009 season on injured reserve but has comeback from a knee injury to serve as a reserve in New Orleans and contribute 39 tackles and two sacks.
ONE TO WATCH
Dezmon Briscoe could be the next rookie receiver to get a shot in the Buccaneers' offense. Mike Williams blazed that trail early and is vying for the NFL's Rookie of the Year award. Arrelious Benn was coming on very strong in the season's second-half before suffering a season-ending knee injury last week. Preston Parker has seen increased playing time of late. And now Briscoe, who had two catches for 28 yards in his NFL debut last Sunday, is likely to get a shot. In terms of size, speed and playing style, Briscoe might have the best shot at replacing what the team had recently been getting from Benn.