It seems like it’s been forever since the Tampa Bay Bucs won a video-game shootout against the New Orleans Saints, 48-40, in the regular-season opener.
When the two teams square off Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, the Saints (10-2) will be trying to clinch the NFC South while the Bucs (5-7) will be trying to keep their recent streak of good play, which resulted in consecutive victories, rolling.
“It feels like it’s been a long (time) ago,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Obviously, a lot’s taken place since then. We’ll be seeing a different quarterback in this game (Jameis Winston has replaced Ryan Fitzpatrick). I think there are some similarities relative to what the teams do scheme-wise, and yet, through the course of the season there’s been injury, new players playing at different positions for both sides. And a big enough gap to where you’re watching a lot of other tape, not just the tape of your past game.”
Winston was serving the first game of a three-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the league when the Saints and Bucs met in the shootout Sept. 9 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Given loads of time to survey the field, Fitzpatrick, often tagged as a journeyman quarterback, carved up the Saints secondary, completing 21 of 28 passes for 417 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. He was not sacked.
The Saints’ defense is playing at a much higher level than it was in Week 1. In the last four games, the Saints have recorded 20 sacks. In the first eight games, New Orleans had only 17 sacks.
“Week to week, we’ve seen improvement,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of his defense. “And I think those guys up front are doing a good job. All 11 guys are getting to the football. They’re looking for turnover opportunities on every play. And just as we go down the stretch, with one quarter left in our season, those are encouraging numbers.”
After the opening loss, the Saints reeled off 10 consecutive victories - the longest streak in the NFL this season - before losing 13-10 on the road to Dallas last Thursday. The Saints have a four-game lead in the NFC South over the 4-4 Carolina Panthers and could wrap up the division title with a victory or a Panthers’ loss.
The Saints also want to keep in touch with the Los Angeles Rams (11-1), who currently own the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
“We’re coming off a tough loss, and we’ve got a lot we’re playing for,” Payton said. “When the season starts, one of the first goals is win your division. So we’re playing for that. Then you look past that. You’re looking to give yourself every opportunity to get the best possible position if you’re a playoff team.”
The Saints could be buoyed by the return of starting left tackle Terron Armstead, who has missed the last three games with a pectoral injury. But receiver Michael Thomas (ankle) did not practice on Wednesday.
Bucs receiver DeSean Jackson (thumb) and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (knee) did not practice Wednesday.
—Field Level Media