It’s funny how things change by the week in the NFL. The Buccaneers entered last weekend’s game in London with a de facto half game lead in the NFC South. A week after beating the New Orleans Saints 26-20 though, the Bucs gave the lead right back as they lost to the Bears in London and then watched the Saints manhandle the Colts 62-7 in the Sunday night game.
It was not the most uplifting of days for Bucs fans. A week after an emotional win, the team plays a sloppy game and loses to the Bears while their divisional rivals absolutely pound a Colts team that ran the Bucs to the wire. It was possible to draw some pretty gloomy conclusions.
Yesterday while Tampa sat home on their bye the Saints played a horrendous game in St. Louis, losing 31-21 to a previously winless Rams team. AJ Feeley played in place of Sam Bradford and Steven Jackson gashed the Saints defense for nearly 200 yards. Without spelling it out, the Saints looked awful yesterday and once again the picture in the NFC South just went from seemingly clear to way out of focus.
Now the match-up this weekend in New Orleans takes on a different significance as the outright divisional lead will be on the line.
Who Are the Saints?
The Saints are a team, as I’ve said all season, that seems to have lost a step from what they once were. They still have games like they did two weeks ago against Indy, but they also play some games where they struggle to put teams away like they were a couple years ago.
For starters toss out the Indy game and toss out the St. Louis game, both of them. In football, a team is never as good or bad as they look. That Indy game was an aberration because that was a highly motivated Saints team playing a completely hopeless Colts team that packed it in early. It probably happened in that exact game, but the Colts have given up for the season. Peyton Manning should probably win the MVP because I’ve never seen a team that was picked to win their division flop so hard after just one injury. But that’s another discussion (we’ll talk about that on the podcast Tuesday).
The Rams? That was the opposite, that was desperate team playing for its head coach and catching a team on a bad week. The Saints aren’t that bad. Nor are they going to hang 62 on a competent team this season. Those were in all likelihood the Saints high and low points in terms of play for the season, it’s just strange they came back to back.
There’s a Way to Beat the Saints
One thing we do know is that this New Orleans Saints team is beatable with a very specific blue print. New Orleans does not play defense well. They’re at the top of the league in offensive categories, specifically passing and scoring, but they also give up a lot of points and they cannot stop the run.
The Saints lost two of the past three weeks because a team controlled the clock, ran the ball well and kept their offense off the field. The Colts couldn’t execute that game-plan because they can’t run the ball. But that’s more a deficiency on their end than it was an achievement for the Saints. Earnest Graham ran for over 100 yards with LeGarrette Blount out three weeks ago, on Sunday a healthy Steven Jackson made easy work of a porous Saints defense to the tune of 159 yards and two touchdowns.
The Saints can still put the points up, but they have to be able to outscore you because they can’t count on their defense.
The Bucs know this, they arguably distributed the blueprint for attacking the Saints earlier this month in their 26-20 win in Tampa. On Sunday they need to execute that same game-plan and hope LeGarrette Blount is healthy. It still boggles my mind how any NFL team can let itself get so thin at tailback, especially one with a competent front office, but if the depth holds out the Bucs know they can control the ball in the Superdome.
This Saints team is beatable, and the Bucs can take a half game lead in the division if they can execute. A 2-0 record over New Orleans also makes a nice tie-breaker should the need for one arise late in the season.
Regardless, we will learn a lot about the identity of both teams on Sunday.