Buccaneers: Saints no longer biggest threat in NFC South

Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /
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The Buccaneers could have a bigger rival than the Saints in the NFC South in 2021.

The narrative around the Buccaneers has changed substantially over the past year. The Bucs went from being one of the worst teams in the NFL to media darlings in a very short time, and the perspective on this team and the rest of the division has shifted because of this as well.

During their years as the punching bag, the Bucs watched the Panthers and the Falcons make it to the Super Bowl, the Saints win one right as the decline began, and New Orleans has also been very close to making it back to the big stage several other times as well.

Having to get crushed by teams with MVP candidates and Super Bowl talent for the better part of a decade made it feel like the Bucs were always punching up in rivalry matches, and these seldom came down to a 50/50 split in Tampa’s favor. Tampa lost most of their games against all three of their opponents for quite some time, but there was still an extra level to the rivalry with the Saints.

The rivalry between the Saints and the Bucs runs very deep, and there are rarely matchups in this series where it doesn’t get chippy early. Even the fans don’t get along, and you would be hard-pressed to find a fan in a Saints jersey in Raymond James Stadium that isn’t getting heckled.

The Saints have dominated the Buccaneers in recent years, but going into the 2020 season, it looked like these two would be the two best teams in the division. This ended up coming true, but the Saints were still the better team during the regular season. Fortunately, the Bucs had the last laugh in the playoffs.

Now, going into the 2021 season, the Bucs are the best team in the NFC and the NFC South, but their biggest competitor in the division is starting to change. The Saints’ recent run of unprecedented success could be coming to a close as Drew Brees exits the league and years of going all-in on the salary cap rear their ugly head.

On the quarterback front, Brees was certainly not playing his best football, but the other options still don’t inspire much confidence. This iteration of the Buccaneer defense, the one that won the Super Bowl, would eat Taysom Hill alive.

In the limited sample size that Hill has against the Bucs, he had his way, but that is not sustainable long-term with his lack of arm strength.

Jameis Winston is the other option for the Saints, who is somewhat more problematic for the Bucs. Winston is clearly the much better quarterback, and him succeeding with the Saints would be a nightmare as yet another quarterback left Tampa to find massive success.

The Bucs still made the right decision in moving on from Winston for Brady, as evidenced by the Super Bowl win in year one, but it would sting to have a former face of the franchise keep the biggest rival relevant.

The good news for the Bucs is that Winston is fighting an uphill battle to exorcise his demons. In Tampa, Winston had players like Mike Evans and Chris Godwin that were able to save plays by making excellent contested catches, and while he still has an All-Pro in Michael Thomas, the skills don’t translate in the same way.

According to the Athletic’s Larry Holder, Winston completed 52.8% of his slant throws during his last year as a starter in 2019. Thomas, whose route tree is generally close to the line of scrimmage and not as vertical as a player like Mike Evans, will either have to change his route tree to fit Winston’s strengths or hope that his new quarterback can make a dramatic change in his game.

Either way, the offensive chemistry issues in New Orleans will be a mountain to overcome, but they also have to contend with losing free agents and the growth of another team in the division.