The Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs wraps up when the 13-4 New Orleans Saints host the 12-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday evening. These NFC South foes have met twice this season, with the Saints taking two decisive victories.
The game is being billed as a marquee showdown between two legendary quarterbacks: Drew Brees of the Saints and Tom Brady of the Buccaneers. Each Hall of Fame passer must contend with a formidable defense on the other side.
New Orleans has the league's 4th ranked defense. The Saints have given up just 311 yards and 21 points per game. They have held seven of their opponents below 20 points and are ranked 9th in 3rd down efficiency. The Saints have top-five rankings in run defense, rushing touchdowns allowed, average per rush, and turnovers forced, but the performance of their pass defense has transformed them into an elite unit.
The Saints rank 5th against the pass, its highest ranking in that category since 2013. They've surrendered just 217 yards/game through the air and have not allowed a 300-Yd passer in their last 21 outings. New Orleans has intercepted 18 passes, most in the league, and allows opposing quarterbacks to complete just 59.8% of their passes against them.
They’ll face a 7th ranked Tampa Bay offense that averages 384 yards per game and 30.8 points/outing, third most in the NFL. The Buccaneers have scored at least 30 points in nine games and have been held to less than 24 just three times. Two of those have been against the Saints, who beat Tampa Bay 34-23 in the season opener, then won the Week 9 rematch in a 38-3 rout. The Buccaneers have been on an offensive roll over their last four games, with most of their success because of Brady and a dangerous group of receivers.
BUCCANEERS PASS OFFENSE
Tampa Bay has the league's 2nd ranked passing attack. In his first season with the team, Tom Brady has completed 65.7% of his throws for an average of 289.6 yards per game with 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He has thrown for over 300 yards seven times this season, eclipsing that barrier in each of the last four games. The 43-Yr old quarterback has averaged 343 yards passing in the last five contests since their bye week, throwing 14 touchdowns and just 1 interception.
Brady has perhaps the deepest receiving corps he’s had in his 21-year career. Wide receiver Mike Evans led the Bucs with 70 receptions for 1,006 yards and 13 touchdowns, surpassing the 100-Yd receiving mark in five contests. Despite missing four games with a hand injury, WR Chris Godwin caught 65 passes for 840 yards and 7 scores, surpassing 80 yards receiving five times.
Veteran seven-time Pro Bowler Antonio Brown was added at mid-season and had 45 receptions for 483 yards and 4 touchdowns in just 8 games. Second-year wideout Scottie Miller was an early season favorite of Brady and caught 33 passes for 501 yards and 3 touchdowns. The receiving quartet of Evans, Godwin, Brown, and Miller are nightmarish enough for most defenses, but Tampa Bay also attacks with a talented duo of tight ends.
Another perennial Pro Bowler, TE Rob Gronkowski, was coaxed out of retirement to join his ex-Patriot teammate Brady and proved he has plenty left in the tank. Gronk hauled in 45 receptions for 623 yards and 7 scores. Cameron Brate continues to be one of the league's underrated tight ends and grabbed 28 passes for 282 yards in a supporting role. Brady has always liked to use his running backs as check-down options. Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II have pulled in a combined 64 receptions for 398 yards in that role.
Tampa Bay has protected their veteran quarterback well, allowing just 21 sacks of Brady this season and multiple sacks in a game just seven times. Rookie RT Tristan Wirfs has lived up to his first-round status and looks like a potential star, but LT Donovan Smith has had his struggles against New Orleans throughout his career. The Buccaneers also lost RG Alex Cappa to a broken ankle last week, meaning that more pressure will be on LG Ali Marpet and C Ryan Jensen to give Brady a clean interior pocket. They will be tested against a New Orleans defense that brings heavy pressure on opposing passers.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE
New Orleans recorded 45 sacks and 112 QB hits during the regular season, among the highest in the league. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson had a breakout campaign, leading the team with 13.5 sacks and 32 pressures. Hendrickson had 3 sacks and 7 pressures in two games against the Buccaneers this season, but he missed last Sunday with a ‘‘stinger'' that leaves him questionable for this week.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan earned his fourth straight Pro Bowl bid behind 7.5 sacks and 26 pressures after a slow start. Jordan has 14 sacks and 29 QB hits in 20 career games against the Buccaneers. The Saints have outstanding depth along the edge with second-year DE Carl Granderson (5 sacks) and former 1st round choice Marcus Davenport, who has 15 pressures.
New Orleans generates terrific pressure inside, forcing opponents to double-team inside and leaving their talented edge rushers with one-on-one matchups at times. Defensive tackle David Onyemata has developed into a terrific every down defender, recording 6.5 sacks and 22 pressures. Fellow DT Sheldon Rankins has been banged up much of the year, but is a respected inside pass rusher. Malcom Brown, Shy Tuttle, and Malcolm Roach only have one sack among them, but have done well disrupting opposing pass pockets.
The Saints cause heavy disruption with their defensive line, but coordinator Dennis Allen runs an aggressive scheme and will not hesitate to blitz in any situation. Safeties Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Malcolm Jenkins have been outstanding in that role. Linebacker Demario Davis has also played a big role as a pass rusher with 4 sacks and 16 pressures. He will also be a key factor in containing Gronkowski and Brate, along with Malcolm Jenkins and LB Alex Anzalone.
The tall task of facing the Tampa Bay wideouts will fall to a New Orleans secondary that has played terrific over the last two-thirds of the year. After a shaky start, the defensive backs were primarily responsible for causing 21 of the 26 turnovers the defense has collected over the last 11 games. Malcom Jenkins and FS Marcus Williams each have 3 interceptions, tied for the team lead, and have all but eliminated the deep pass for opposing offenses.
Cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins have locked down some of the NFL's top wideouts, allowing the defense to be more aggressive with coverage and blitz packages. Lattimore has 2 interceptions, 11 passes broken up, and has allowed just 52.9% completion percentage when targeted. Janoris Jenkins allows 58.8% when targeted, has broken up 12 throws, and has intercepted 3 passes.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who leads the defense with 13 passes defended and allows 57.4% completion rate when targeted, will guard either Brown or Godwin out of the slot. Cornerback Patrick Robinson and CB/S P.J. Williams provide depth for the defensive backfield against the deep corps of Buccaneer receivers.
The Saints defeated the Buccaneers 34-23 in the season opener at home, then routed them 38-3 on the road in the Week 9 rematch. New Orleans intercepted Brady five times while registering six sacks and 15 QB hits in their two meetings. They dismantled the Tampa Bay offense in both victories, holding them to a combined 504 yards and 28.6% conversion rate on 3rd downs.
Marshon Lattimore elevates his play to a Hall of Fame level when facing Mike Evans. The Tampa Bay Pro Bowler has been targeted just 20 times under Lattimore's coverage since 2017, catching only 9 passes. He has caught one ball or less five times in eight career meetings against Lattimore in what are often physical and combative battles.
Janoris Jenkins and Gardner-Johnson also face crucial matchups against Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin, and the Saints must contain Gronkowski, but the key to beating Tom Brady has always been pressure. The New Orleans defense is built for putting a quarterback on the ground. Their ability to pressure Brady and force rushed throws is likely one of the biggest keys to the outcome of this Divisional Playoff showdown.