Maybe the third time is the charm?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers enter the Divisional Round of the 2020-21 NFL Playoffs preparing to face an all-too-familiar opponent in the NFC South rival New Orleans Saints. The Saints defeated the Buccaneers twice in the regular season, competitively by a score of 34-23 in Week 1 and handily by a score of 38-3 in Week 9.
But this Buccaneers team is different than the one that last meet the Saints, thanks to an explosion on offense at the hands of quarterback Tom Brady, wide receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, and several other contributors. Vegas would tend to agree as the spread currently favors New Orleans by just three points, while the over/under is set at 52, per OddsShark.
How does the Sports Illustrated-AllBucs staff see Sunday night's game playing out?
Zach Goodall: Saints 35, Buccaneers 31
While I do think New Orleans is capable of sweeping Tampa Bay across three contests this year, this should be the closest one of them all. And provided the Buccaneers' recent surge on offense, this very well could end up in a victory for the underdogs.
In fact, it's best to forget about the last time these teams met, when New Orleans handed Tampa Bay a 38-3 loss in Week 9. Over the last five games since Tampa's bye week, the Bucs have averaged 35.8 points per game as the offense has found its groove. Quarterback Tom Brady is arguably playing some of the best football of his 21-year career right now, which should be frightening even to the Saints' defense, a top-five unit in the NFL in 2020.
How Tampa Bay goes about defending New Orleans' multi-faceted offense, though, will be the determining factor in regards to advancing to the NFC Conference Championship. QB Drew Brees has posted 382 yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions over his last two meetings with the Bucs, while running back Alvin Kamara has scored 14 total touchdowns since Week 10.
A week removed from inexperienced Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke moving the ball with relative ease against the Bucs defense, paired with the previous two matchups, I'm just not sure I trust the unit enough to slow down this New Orleans offense. I'm expecting a good amount of scoring from both teams, though.
Jason Beede: Buccaneers 27, Saints 24
While it feels like the Saints just have the Bucs' number this season, having won both regular-season games, Tampa Bay has improved in a number of areas since the 38-3 loss in Week 9 to New Orleans.
For starters, the Bucs' offensive line has provided Tom Brady a lot of time in the pocket and Ali Marpet is healthy this time around. While Tampa Bay won't have Alex Cappa in the short term, the offensive line's performance has been a big reason the Bucs have won five in a row while averaging nearly 36 points per game.
Additionally, Tampa Bay wide receiver Antonio Brown is much more comfortable playing in the Bucs' system. Brown made his debut in Week 9 and really didn't contribute the first five weeks he played. However, Brown has caught at least one touchdown in the past four games, including a 36-yard grab last week. With Brown now a legit option for Brady, this means the Saints will have to take attention away from Mike Evans, who should be close to 100%, Chris Godwin, and Rob Gronkowski.
Whether or not Ronald Jones II is available this weekend, it appears that Leonard Fornette is reliable enough for Tampa Bay to serve as the starting back and contribute in the pass and run game.
Overall, I believe it's really hard to beat the same team three times in the same season, especially considering how much the Bucs have improved since these two teams faced each other. With that in mind, Tampa Bay will edge out New Orleans 27-24 on Sunday.
Donavon Keiser: Saints 34, Buccaneers 31
Despite a valiant effort and a game that comes down to the last drive, I have the Saints taking it on a last second field goal to win.
The Bucs offense should find trouble as the Saints pass rush has notoriously given the Bucs offensive line problems in the first two match ups this season. If those problems can be mitigated with good offensive line play, the Bucs could be able to pull off an upset.
However, the Bucs secondary has been struggling as of late as CB Carlton Davis III gets back into his groove after being out with an injury to end the regular season. The Buccaneers should be able to limit Alvin Kamara with their top three run defense, but the secondary must be able to stop Drew Brees and Michael Thomas.
It should be a bloodbath of two NFC South teams, but after going back and forth on my picks I’ve got to roll with New Orleans due to their top notch defense despite the firepower of the Bucs offense.