Late-season Bucs-Saints games have typically had a lot on the line, but no matter the records there is no shortage of motivation for this year's battle
In three of the last four seasons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints have met in a game that fell somewhere between the very end of November and the first few days of December, and each time it was a critical outing for the Buccaneers.
When the two teams played on the last day of November a year ago, the Bucs were 8-3 and trying to both solidify their lead in the NFC South and avenge an earlier loss to their division mates. When the two teams met two days into December in 2007, the Buccaneers were without their starting quarterback, Jeff Garcia, but hoping to put the South of reach with a win. Four days into the season's final month in 2005, the Bucs played the Saints in a game that was critical to Tampa Bay's fight with Carolina for division supremacy.
Tampa Bay did manage to win all three of those games, though only the '05 and '07 victories actually figured in a division title. Now the Buccaneers and Saints are about to meet once again as November draws to a close and…well, the game definitely won't figure in any sort of division-title run for the Buccaneers. At 1-8, in fact, the Bucs have already been eliminated from the South race by the 9-0 Saints.
Still, the records are motivating factors, or at least New Orleans' unblemished mark is. The Bucs-Saints series might not carry the same level of enmity that Bucs-Panthers and Bucs-Falcons matchups often inspire, but it usually produces a very entertaining outcome. The last three games, in fact, have all been decided by four points or less.
The disparate records of the two clubs might lead some to expect a far wider split in the scores this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, but the Buccaneers just might find a little extra motivation in that goose-egg on the right side of the Saints' ledger. One might compare it to Week Nine of the 1998 season, when the 3-4 Buccaneers welcomed the undefeated Minnesota Vikings – Randy Moss's rookie team – to Raymond James. The Vikings left with a 27-24 defeat, their only regular-season loss of the year.
"That's always fun," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris of motivating his team to play an undefeated squad. "That's the easy part. That's the part that makes everybody motivated, to play spoiler. Go in there and get a chance to beat this team. There's no secret – I'm sure [Sean] Payton is telling those guys, 'Hey, this team has beaten us three out of the last four times we've met.' I'm sure he's getting those guys motivated in the same way. It's a division game – that's one. It's guys that don't like us and we don't like them. There's no secret there. It's going to be a lot of fun to go play this game. It always is."
Personally, Morris is also looking forward to Sunday's game against New Orleans because of the specific sort of experience it will provide for his new starter at quarterback, rookie Josh Freeman. The Bucs' 2009 first-round pick has had a heady debut, leading a pair of impressive comebacks against Green Bay and Miami and coming away with one win and one narrow loss. But he hasn't experienced the tenor of an intradivision matchup yet, and that's the value of Sunday's visit from the Saints.
Even better, this week's game kicks off a stretch of three straight, and five of seven, against NFC South opponents.
"It's perfectly planned for Number Five," said Morris. "It's a chance for him to get five opportunities against division foes that he's going to face for the next 10 to 15 years. It's an opportunity for him to get out there and face those guys, along with all the young guys. We've got a bunch of young guys that are developing every day and getting better."
It's the rare NFL player or coach who goes into any game, no matter the records of the two teams, expecting to lose. The big games, the tough games, the heated division games – and in the rare cases such as these, the games against undefeated opponents in late November – are all circled on the calendar and eagerly anticipated by all involved. NFL players seek to prove they are the best by playing against the best.
That's the Bucs' opportunity this week, and they intend to be up to the challenge.
"We've all got to get better," said Morris. "There's no doubt about that. We'll get the guys out there with another opportunity this week. Here's another opportunity to go get the 9-0 Saints."
The Buccaneers began their Week 11 preparations with five players limited on the practice field, but that appears largely designed to give a few banged-up men some extra rest.
Departing from their recent Wednesday approach by leaving off the pads to start the week, the Buccaneers practiced in shorts and helmets and Morris used that occasion to limit the work of several starters on offense: wide receiver Antonio Bryant, running back Cadillac Williams and tight end Kellen Winslow.
All three are dealing with knee ailments, but only Bryant has missed time recently. The Bucs' leading receiver from a year ago has sat out the last two contests, and three of the team's nine games overall, due to lingering soreness and stiffness in the knee that required arthroscopic knee surgery in August.
Bryant didn't practice at all last week, so it was little surprise that he was deactivated on Sunday against the Dolphins. By the same token, his participation on Wednesday can be seen as a promising sign.
"He did [show progress] in practice today and that was great," said Morris. "He was limited but he went out there and ran around as good as I've seen."
Winslow and Williams may get a heavier workload on Thursday.
"[We're] just taking care of Winslow and Cadillac, guys like that that have those sore bodies. We went with [only] helmets on today and it's a good day to rest Cadillac. We did a lot of stuff and he'll be ready to come back tomorrow and practice."
The other two players on the Bucs' first injury report of the week were cornerback Aqib Talib (hamstring) and quarterback Byron Leftwich (right elbow). Both players have been dealing with the same ailments for several weeks; Talib was able to play through it in Miami and has not missed any game time this year, while Leftwich has been serving as the inactive third quarterback anyway.
The Saints' injury report is a bit longer, and it includes six players who did not practice at all on Wednesday. However, there are actually signs of potential improvement on New Orleans' list.
Most notably, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis (knee) and safety Darren Sharper (knee) were able to practice on Wednesday, albeit in a limited fashion. Neither Ellis nor Sharper played in the Saints' win over St. Louis on Sunday, and the former has actually missed the last three contests.
Of the six Saints who were held out of all work on Wednesday, two are dealing with injuries that kept them out of at least the last game: cornerback Jabari Greer (groin) and wide receiver Lance Moore (ankle). The other four are running back Reggie Bush (knee), center Jonathan Goodwin (ankle), cornerback Tracy Porter (knee) and tight end David Thomas. Greer, Bush, Goodwin and Porter are listed as starters on New Orleans' depth chart.
Receiver Added to Practice Squad
The Buccaneers have made another move with their eight-man practice squad, signing first-year wide receiver Darnell Jenkins on Wednesday. Jenkins filled a spot on that unit opened when rookie defensive end Maurice Evans was placed on practice squad injured reserve.
Evans, who also spent the first week of the season on Tampa Bay's active roster but did not appear in the season opener, had been on the practice squad for two weeks before sustaining his season-ending injury.
Jenkins first entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Houston Texans in 2008. He spent most of his rookie season on Houston's practice squad before being promoted to the active roster on December 16. Jenkins appeared in one game, playing on special teams against Oakland, and was then inactive for the season finale.
Jenkins went to training camp again with the Texans this past summer but did not make the active roster. He later spent two weeks in late October and early November on the Cleveland Browns' practice squad.
The 5-10, 191-pound Jenkins played his college football at the University of Miami, where he finished his career with 90 receptions for 1,274 yards and five touchdowns. As a senior in 2007, he capped his collegiate career with 31 catches for 619 yards and two scores, topping 100 receiving yards in three different games. Jenkins hails from Miami.