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Tampa Bay Buccaneers: No Easy Out for the Saints

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The New Orleans Saints should prepare for a full 60-minute battle for the NFC South crown.

Detroit Lions v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Quarterback Jameis Winston #3 avoids a sack by Detroit linebacker Tahir Whitehead #59 in the 4th quarter of the Buccaneers game against the Detroit Lions on December 10, 2017
Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

This Sunday, the New Orleans Saints (11-4) will play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11) for a chance at their first NFC South crown since 2011. There is so much at stake in the NFC South that the NFL decided to move both games to the afternoon time slot (4:25 p.m. EST). This was most likely done to ensure that every scenario was still in play when both teams hit the field on Sunday.

If the Atlanta Falcons (9-6) are able to beat the Carolina Panthers (11-4), then the Saints are division champions regardless of the outcome versus the Buccaneers. However, if the Panthers beat the Falcons, the Saints will need a win at Raymond James Stadium to become division champs. While their respective records would suggest that the Saints should win this game by a landslide, as of late the Buccaneers have proven to be well suited to play the deplorable role of spoiler.

Two weeks ago heading into a Monday night matchup against the then red-hot Falcons, fresh off of a win against the Saints, the Buccaneers seemed perfectly suited for an embarrassing night. Their all-world defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was out with a bicep injury, and both Pro Bowl Linebacker Lavonte David and starting cornerback Vernon Hargreaves were out with hamstring injuries. During the contest, both their promising first-round tight end O.J. Howard and their big offseason free agent acquisition wide receiver DeSean Jackson needed medical attention.

Minus the touchdown by Howard early in the game, both contributed little to the offense after the first quarter. With such turmoil and virtually nothing to play for, you would think the Buccaneers would simply succumb to their inevitable fate, but even in the midst of insurmountable odds, the Bucs gave the Falcons all they could handle over the course of the next three quarters. The Falcons were in control for most of the game, as Devonta Freeman sliced through their depleted defense and the Buccaneers struggled to get their star receiver Mike Evans involved in the passing game.

The Falcons went into half time with a commanding 10-point lead. At that point, I thought it was just a matter of time before the favored Falcons lowered the hammer and made the game a laugher. I thought it would be the one night the Falcons were able to remind everyone of how offensively dangerous they were just a year prior.

Then all at once about midway through the third quarter, quarterback Jameis Winston maneuvered his way out of a sure sack and launched a bomb down the field to Mike Evans in double coverage for a touchdown. From that point on, the Falcons and everyone watching knew that this was going to be a hard-fought game and the Buccaneers were not going away quietly.

The Buccaneers blocked kicks, forced fumbles, and pressured Matt Ryan consistently. Finally, they sacked Matt Ryan on a critical third down to force a punt late in the fourth quarter to give themselves a chance at a game-winning drive. Winston was brilliant throughout the contest, throwing for 299 yards and 3 touchdowns, but also executed a textbook drive to put the Buccaneers in field goal range with seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. If the 54-yard field attempt was a little further left, they would have taken the Falcons to overtime with momentum on their side, but the kick was wide-right and Atlanta left beaten and bruised, but victorious.

This past Sunday against the Panthers, Tampa went in as huge underdogs again, with the Panthers favored to win by 9.5 points, according to Sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark. Once again, the Winston-led Bucs were ready and prepared for a full 60-minute fight. This time they were a little bit healthier with McCoy back in action.

After committing an early turnover, which led to the first 3 points of the game for the Panthers, the Bucs were able to follow their recently revitalized running game, led by Peyton Barber, and answer immediately with 3 points of their own. After a late second quarter Panthers kick return for a touchdown, a very rare sighting these days, and a drive that stalled in the red zone, the Buccaneers found themselves once again heading into halftime down to a favored team.

The determined Bucs team did not flinch. Early in the third quarter, they picked off Cam Newton, and quickly turned that turnover into points, with a Winston touchdown pass to Bobo Wilson. Winston continued to frustrate the Panthers defense, even after his top target Mike Evans suffered a slight injury, with laser-like passes to little known wide receivers.

The Buccaneers defense was also able to frustrate Cam Newton and consistently pressured him throughout the game. Once again a missed 50-plus yard field goal, coupled with some late-game heroics by Newton, led to their ultimate demise. Nevertheless, the Bucs were once again mere moments from pulling off an incredible upset.

Granted, this New Orleans Saints team has proven over the course of the season to be a better team than both the Falcons and Panthers. The Saints have also shown an ability to beat teams they were favored to beat. However, based on their play in the Jets game, they do show some susceptibility to a trap game — or as some would say, a spoiler team.

So, what makes the Buccaneers a great spoiler?

I’m glad you asked. I believe there are at least three principle characteristics that puts Tampa in this category.

  1. An endless competitive spirit
  2. Great leadership
  3. Underrated or underappreciated talent.

First, the Buccaneers have every reason and have had every reason for the last few weeks to pack it in and begin the plans for next season. According to Sander Philipse of Bucs Nation, Tampa Bay has been practically out of the playoff hunt since December 7th after the Falcons guaranteed themselves an 8-8 record by beating the Saints. Even if they were not officially and mathematically eliminated, it was clear at that point that there was not much to play for at all for the Buccaneers.

However, that did not alter their approach in the slightest. You could see it in almost every player. If you watch the Falcons game and you want to see an example of a true competitive spirit, simply watch running back Peyton Barber. Most of the devastating hits that night were delivered from Devonta Freeman to the Bucs secondary, that’s true, but if you want to see grit and a real no-quit attitude you can see it in almost every one of Barber’s runs that night.

True, he finished the contest with only 53 yards on 13 carries, but he ran like his career depended on every run, and that type of competitive fire is unquenchable. So regardless of what’s on the line for the Buccaneers this Sunday, you will be getting their absolute best effort for 60 minutes straight.

The second point here, great leadership, is definitely in question, especially if you saw the end of the Panthers games, where an inconsolable Winston could not be kept off the field after a late fourth quarter sack-fumble. While he could definitely stand for some behavior refinement, over the course of the last two games Winston’s play on the field has been remarkable. He has thrown for a hellacious 666 yards (see what I did there?) and 4 TDs in his last two games against division rivals.

According to ESPN, in Week 16 Winston was second in the NFL in passing yards with 367 yards, only behind Blake Bortles, and he led all quarterbacks with a 131.1 Quarterback Rating. Winston has averaged a 130 Quarterback rating for the last two weeks. He seems to be playing some of his best football right now, and even after some extreme flashes of immaturity, and some very questionable motivation tactics, it is clear that Winston is the leader of this football team.

It’s a well-known fact that when the leader is playing well that the team generally follows. Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said, “Obviously, Jamies is extremely talented, can make all the throws, dangerous when he gets out of the pocket, he was the first pick in the draft for a reason...He definitely presents an issue...”.

Third, the Bucs have underappreciated talent. This team has suffered some close losses this season mainly due to injuries at key positions and special teams miscues. Those issues were critical to them ultimately losing the last few contests, however, the Buccaneers are talented. I have already expounded on the improved play of Winston since returning from his midseason injury, the revised running game led by Barber, and the return of newly named 6-time Pro Bowler McCoy.

Outside of McCoy no other Bucs were named to the Pro Bowl, however, it is well-known around the league that wide receiver Mike Evans, tight end Cameron Brate, linebacker Kwon Alexander, and cornerback Brent Grimes are special playmakers at their position. Couple them with consistent role players like emerging wide receiver Adam Humphries and safety T.J. Ward, and you have the makings of an underrated group of very talented players.

This Sunday, the Buccaneers will be looking to exact revenge on the Saints after their first contest ended in a Jamies Winston injury and a suspension for a very frustrated Mike Evans. I’m certain every Saints fan remembers the blatant and ill-advised cheap shot to the back of Saints Pro Bowl rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Special-teams miscues and injuries played a critical role in that game as well, as the Saints handled the Buccaneers with relative ease, beating the Bucs 30-10.

This contest will certainly take on a different feeling in Raymond James Stadium, even though most predict a similar outcome. The great Bill Parcells said, “You are what your record says you are,” and that is very true. At very critical moments in each valiant effort, the Buccaneers have done something a 4-win team would do and ultimately gave winnable games away. However, if they put together a complete effort on Sunday, the 11-loss Buccaneers will make giving them a 12th loss an extremely difficult task, but not at all impossible.

Hello Canal Street Chronicles Community and SB Nation, my name is Ernest Ricks, and I am delighted, some might say overjoyed, to serve as a contributor to such an engaging and passionate fan base. I love covering the New Orleans Saints and it gives me great pleasure to lend my voice to all things Saints. My fandom turn fanatic vibe for the New Orleans Saints started as a junior in high school. That’s very late for a Charity Hospital born Louisiana boy, but my father was a lot more into boxing than football and he is not a big Saints fan at all, so it took a little longer for me than most.

I remember watching my great aunt, Lily Mae “Grandma” Riley, yelling at the Saints every Sunday during the season. They were horrible, the fans wore bags on their heads, they were losing all the time, but she would video-record every single game and she stayed completely loyal to the team. I remember asking her “Grandma, why do you put yourself through this, they are the worst, why not cheer for a team that wins”. She would always tell me simply that the Saints were our hometown team, win or lose, and we should give them our support.

I wanted no parts of it at the time, but fast forward years later and here I am recording every Saints game, yelling at the Saints like a coach from my couch, driving up to West Virginia just to see them practice, and, up until just recently, answering the question “why do you put yourself through this”. My great aunt did not survive to see the Saints reward all her cheers and tears, but she did set me up to experience some of the most memorable moments of my life and it is in her honor that I serve as a contributor to this great community.