The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-5) travel to the Big Easy on Sunday to take on the New Orleans Saints (13-4) for the third time this season.
This time the two teams meet in the NFC Divisional Round and the winner moves one game closer to Super Bowl LV in February.
The Saints have won five straight over the Bucs, including two games this season. In Week 9, New Orleans held Tampa Bay to just three points in route to a 38-3 win, but Bucs' head coach Bruce Arians believes so much has changed since that loss.
In the Wild Card Round, the Bucs defeated the Washington Football Team on the road 31-23 while the Saints handled their business at home 21-9 over the Chicago Bears. With all of that in mind, here are three keys to the game for the Bucs when they take on the Saints on Sunday:
1. Tampa Bay has to Convert on Third Down and Find It's Rhythm Early
In the blowout loss to the Saints in Week 9, the Bucs finished 1-of-9 on third down, and in the season-opener vs. New Orleans, that number was 5-of-13.
Converting on third down has been something Tampa Bay has struggled with, but recently the Bucs have done a good job keeping drives alive. In the last three games, the Bucs have a 45.71% conversion rate, which is inside the top ten of the NFL.
This is easier said than done especially when facing New Orleans. The Saints all season long have done a good job of limiting teams on third down and getting their defense off the field. In their last three games, the Saints have only allowed opposing teams to convert 17.86% of third downs, including holding the Bears to just 1-of-10 last week.
“I don’t know if it’s strategy – just have to do what you’re doing at this point in the season," head coach Bruce Arians said when asked if the Bucs need to change its strategy going into the third game against an opponent within a season. "We’re doing different things than we were doing back then, especially in the opener. Just a matter of [doing] what you do and do it better than how they do it.”
Recently, the Bucs have done well on third down so following Arians' advice, Tampa Bay needs to continue what they've done the past few games. Otherwise, the Bucs will have another long afternoon vs. the Saints.
2. The Bucs (Specifically, Tom Brady) Can't Turn the Ball Over like Last Time
Tom Brady threw two interceptions in the season opener vs. the Saints, then three tossed more in the team's forgettable 38-3 loss to New Orleans. This simply can't happen and Brady knows he has to play better on Sunday.
"That’s a big point of emphasis – we’ve got to protect it in the passing game," Brady said. "That responsibility obviously falls on the quarterback, but it falls on a lot of other people too. It falls on all of us making a concerted effort to be on the same page in the passing game so that we can play with anticipation [and] play with confidence. There [are] a lot of things that go into that."
We've already seen improvement from Brady, especially during the team's five-game winning streak. Brady has only thrown one interception in the past month of games, compared to 13 touchdown passes. Fewer turnovers have not only helped the offense score more points but it also has helped Tampa Bay's defense, head coach Bruce Arians explained this week.
“It’s helped a bunch," Arians said about the team's decrease in turnovers. "The number of short fields we put them in last year just to start ballgames – if we didn’t give up a touchdown, we gave up an interception that was in the plus-20 area. Our field position starts defensively are dramatically changed.”
Brady pointed out turnover margin as an important stat for both teams. The Saints have a +9 turnover differential, which is slightly higher than Tampa Bays' +8 turnover margin. This is calculated by subtracting the total number of giveaways from the total number of takeaways.
"Turnover margin – out of all of the stats – I think that one always speaks to wins and losses just about more than any other stat," Brady explained. "Taking care of the football maximizes your ability to score. Taking the football away minimizes their ability to score. It’s very difficult to score if you don’t have the ball."
And he's right. Tampa Bay only scored three points thanks to three turnovers. If the Bucs want to score more points this time around, Brady and Co. need to take better care of the football.
3. Speaking of Brady, the Bucs Must Continue to Protect Their Quarterback
In the Wild Card matchup against the Washington Football Team, the Bucs' offensive line did a solid job blocking for Brady, only allowing three sacks.
Overall, Tampa Bay's offensive line has done a really good job and has been critical to the team's success in the past five games.
“I think any quarterback that has four seconds [to throw] – it’s beneficial to them," offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. "I think these guys have been playing at a high level all year, really. We’ve got a tough task ahead of us Sunday, but with that being said, these guys come to work every day, they play their tails off week in and week out."
The Saints, similar to Washington, feature a really effective pass rush. Thanks to the group up front, New Orleans ranked 4th in total yards allowed per game (310.9) & 5th in points allowed per game (21.1) this season.
“The players that they have," Leftwich said when asked what makes New Orleans’ pass rush effective. "Obviously, they’ve got good football players with their hands in the ground [who are] trying to get to the quarterback. They have a really good scheme, so they’re well-coached. They have a lot of good football players – that’s what it is, really. This game comes down to football players."
Those players that Leftwich mentioned above include Trey Hendrickson, who leads the team with 13.5 sacks, and Cameron Jordan, who is the only player with seven or more sacks in each of the past nine seasons.
"You win and lose football games and this time of year it’s good on good, so we understand that it’s going to be another good on good football game Sunday evening," Leftwich said. "My guys are trying to get ready to roll [and] get ready for the ballgame. [We are] just ready to have fun Sunday evening.”