Two of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play will face off against each other when the New Orleans Saints host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this afternoon in the last of the four NFL Divisional Round Playoff games. The 13-4 Saints won the NFC South and are the conference's number two seed, while the 12-5 Buccaneers finished second in the NFC South and entered the postseason as the fifth seed.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady have faced each other seven times in their illustrious NFL careers. Brees has a 5-2 record as a starter against Brady, with two of those victories coming when he was with the San Diego Chargers. Brees threw 20 touchdowns and just one interception in those matchups, while Brady had 9 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
The first five meetings between these future Hall of Famers were when Brady was with the New England Patriots. When he signed with the Buccaneers this offseason, it guaranteed two showdowns between these icons, with their most meaningful duel this afternoon.
New Orleans swept the Buccaneers this season, taking a 34-23 triumph at home in the season opener and routing their rival 38-3 during the Week 9 rematch in Tampa. The Saints have a 37-21 all-time record against Tampa Bay, including a 20-12 record against them at home. Since the formation of the NFC South in 2002, New Orleans owns a 24-14 advantage over the Buccaneers and an 11-8 record against them in the Superdome. The Saints are 20-10 against Tampa Bay, 10-5 at home, since the arrival of head coach Sean Payton and Brees to the franchise in 2006.
The national media have been focused on the juicy headline of Brees vs. Brady, but there are plenty of intense matchups on both sides of the ball that will determine the outcome of this Divisional Round clash of talented NFC South rivals.
ALVIN KAMARA vs. LAVONTE DAVID/DEVIN WHITE
Kamara leads the Saints in rushing with 932 yards and 16 touchdowns, adding another 99 and a score in last week's Wild Card win over the Bears. He also led the team, and all NFL running backs, in receiving, pulling in 83 receptions for 756 yards and 5 more touchdowns. Kamara has been the one constant on a New Orleans offense battered by injuries at the receiver position and is the league's most versatile offensive weapon.
Few teams have a linebacker with the athleticism to stay with the dynamic New Orleans back in the open field, but Tampa Bay has two. Lavonte David and Devin White are the top two tacklers for the Buccaneers. Both are not only sideline-to-sideline playmakers but are also outstanding in coverage.
Running back Latavius Murray (quad) and Taysom Hill (knee) each look like they'll miss this game with injuries, leaving most of the rushing burden on Kamara against the top-ranked Tampa Bay rush defense. Kamara has scored 10 touchdowns but averaged just 106 yards from scrimmage in eight career meetings against the Buccaneers, 48 on the ground and 58 receiving while averaging 6.5 receptions per game.
Kamara must be able to make plays in space against the athletic David and White to spread out the Tampa Bay defense for running room between the tackles, but also to free up space for the New Orleans wideouts.
SAINTS CORNERBACKS vs. BUCCANEERS WIDE RECEIVERS
New Orleans cornerback Marshon Lattimore elevates his play to a Hall of Fame level when facing Buccaneers WR 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. Lattimore has allowed only 53% completion percentage when targeted this season, intercepting 2 passes.
Saints CB Janoris Jenkins and S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson face equally crucial matchups against Tampa Bay wideouts Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin. Tom Brady has thrown for over 300 yards in his last four games, throwing 12 touchdowns and only 1 interception. Most of his aerial success has come down the field to his gamebreaking wideouts and veteran TE Rob Gronkowski. New Orleans linebackers Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone could draw Gronkowski most often, allowing S Malcolm Jenkins to help S Marcus Williams against deep throws.
With Patrick Robinson out of this game, reserve CB/S P.J. Williams will also factor into coverage packages, especially when Tampa WR Scotty Miller is in the game. Man-to-man responsibilities on Evans, Godwin, and Brown will often fall to Lattimore, Jenkins, and Gardner-Johnson.
Janoris Jenkins, who allows 59% completion percentage when targeted, had a key pick-6 of Brady when these teams played in September. Brown, whose first game with Tampa Bay was against the Saints in Week Nine, has an excellent chemistry with Brady and creates matchup problems for any defense.
New Orleans intercepted Brady five times in two meetings and contained their explosive passing game. The ability to stand up in coverage again and not give Brady any easy throws would allow the Saints fierce pass rush more time to get to the Tampa Bay quarterback and cut down on deep opportunities for the Buccaneers.
PASS PROTECTION vs. PASS RUSH (BOTH SIDES)
Each of these legendary quarterbacks will face two of the most disruptive pass rushes in the league. The Saints had 45 sacks and 112 QB hits during the regular season, while the Buccaneers had 48 sacks and 116 QB hits. Simply stated: The defense that creates more disruption to the opposing passer will win this playoff game.
New Orleans has allowed just 7 sacks in the last eight contests against the Buccaneers. Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead have dominated Tampa Bay edge rushers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, allowing only one combined sack and very few pressures in the last four meetings against them.
Center Erik McCoy, along with guards Andrus Peat and Cesar Ruiz, must give Brees a clean inside pocket against Buccaneer interior rushers Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston, and blitzes from Devin White, but did an outstanding job of protecting Brees during the regular season matchups. Brees was hit just five times and sacked twice on 64 dropbacks against the Buccaneers this season.
The book on beating Tom Brady has always been constant interior pressure. New Orleans pummeled and harassed him from all directions in both showdowns this season, registering 6 sacks and 15 QB hits. Pro Bowl DE Cameron Jordan, who has 14 sacks and 29 QB hits in 20 career games against the Buccaneers, faces a key battle against a budding star in Tampa Bay rookie RT Tristan Wirfs. New Orleans DE Trey Hendrickson feasted against LT Donovan Smith in both matchups this year, registering 10 pressures and sacking Brady 3 times.
Tampa Bay will be without injured guard Alex Cappa, as they try to protect against a wave of interior pressure from the Saints. New Orleans DT David Onyemata has had an outstanding season and had 5 hits on Brady when these teams met in October. Onyemata is joined by Sheldon Rankins, one of the league's better inside rushers, along with a deep rotation of defensive tackles that keep this position fresh late in games.
The Buccaneers look to pressure defenses with a downfield passing attack that requires their offensive line to hold up in protection longer. That could be problematic against the aggressive New Orleans defense if the man coverage wins their matchups underneath. The Saints focus on pressuring defenses horizontally, with Brees making quick reads to get the ball to his weapons in space.
Both defenses are outstanding against the run, but the Saints seem better equipped to establish a balance with Kamara and a physical offensive line. Brees will also have his full complement of receivers for the first time since the season opener against the Buccaneers, whose secondary has been vulnerable recently.
New Orleans All-Pro WR Michael Thomas has averaged 8 catches for 100 yards with seven games of over 90 yards receiving in nine games against Tampa Bay. Wideouts Deonte Harris and Emmanuel Sanders need to make plays to attract some attention away from Thomas and Kamara, but TE Jared Cook could be the X-factor against a Tampa Bay defense that’s been susceptible to tight ends all year.
Expect Brees to be sharp in what could be his last game in the Superdome. Despite the national media's season-long infatuation with Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, the Saints emphatically proved that they had the better overall team twice. In an epic duel between iconic quarterbacks Drew Brees and Tom Brady and two championship caliber squads, New Orleans will again prevail because of better talent on both sides of the ball.
SAINTS - 33 BUCCANEERS - 27