The New Orleans Saints play their first divisional game of the 2019 season this afternoon, when they host NFC South foe Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Mercedes Benz Superdome. The Saints enter this game at 3-1, having won two straight despite future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees being sidelined since week 2 with a thumb injury. Tampa Bay comes into the game with a 2-2 record, riding a wave of confidence after a 55-40 road upset of the Los Angeles Rams a week ago.
This is the 55th all-time meeting between the Saints and Buccaneers, with New Orleans holding a 33-21 advantage in the series. That also includes an 18-12 record against the Bucs inside the friendly confines of the Superdome, site of today's contest.
The first meeting between the Saints and Tampa would turn out to be one of the most embarrassing moments in New Orleans franchise history. It took place on the 13th game of the 1977 season (December 11) in New Orleans. The Saints were hosting the Buccaneers, who were in just their second season of existence. At the time, Tampa Bay had an 0-26 record as a franchise, having lost all 14 games of their inaugural 1976 season and coming into this game sporting an 0-12 record. The Saints would allow five quarterback sacks, and worse yet turn the ball over 7 times on the afternoon. The Buccaneers defense would actually outscore the New Orleans offense, scoring three second half touchdowns off turnovers on their way to a 33-14 win and their first victory in franchise history. The Saints would defeat the Bucs in Tampa each of the next two years after that humiliating loss, but then lose to the Buccaneers again at home in both 1981 and '82. Despite playing in different divisions at the time (Saints in the NFC West, Buccaneers in NFC Central), the two would play once each year between 1981-92. New Orleans would win six straight games against the Bucs between '83-88, and 10 of 11 games against them through the '94 season. That included a home dominance against Tampa Bay that would lead to nine straight home victories over the Buccaneers between 1984-98. The last of those victories in that home streak would come on October 25, 1998, when the New Orleans defense would hold Tampa Bay to 11 first downs and force three turnovers in a 9-3 win. It would be the last victory the Saints franchise would have without scoring a touchdown, prior to their 12-10 win over the Dallas Cowboys last week.
The turn of the millennium would bring NFL realignment in 2002, moving both the Saints and Bucs into the newly formed NFC South division. Since becoming divisional opponents, the Saints own a 20-14 record over Tampa Bay, but oddly are just 9-8 against them at home. The first meeting in New Orleans as divisional opponents occurred on December 1, 2002. The Saints had defeated the Buccaneers in an overtime shocker in the season opener, and were now batting to stay in contention for the division title. Both defenses had excellent personnel, but New Orleans held Tampa Bay to just 34 yards rushing and forced 3 turnovers to swing momentum. Despite their own offensive struggles, the Saints got 99 yards rushing and a score from Deuce McAllister. Quarterback Aaron Brooks would only complete 9 throws for 155 yards, but 5 of those to wide receiver Joe Horn for 106 yards and a touchdown on the way to a 23-20 victory. The Buccaneers would go on to win the first NFC South title though, then roll their way to a victory in Super Bowl XXXVII. New Orleans would lose three straight home games to the Bucs in the series after that '02 win, and drop four of six to them overall. The Buccaneers have swept New Orleans just twice in the history of this series, the first of which was during the 2005 season. The Saints were a franchise in disarray that year, having been displaced by Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that left the entire Gulf Coast region in shambles. New Orleans would "host" Tampa that season in Baton Rouge on 12/4/05. The Saints defense played admirably that afternoon, but could not generate enough offense against a Buccaneers team that would win the division that year in a 10-3 defeat. New Orleans would travel to Tampa on January 1 in the 2005 season finale, a merciful end to a tragic year, but lose again to their Florida rival.
The Saints would start over with a new coach and a new quarterback following the 2005 season, while the franchise worked closely with the community in Katrina recovery efforts. The Saints are 17-9 against Tampa Bay since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006, holding an 8-5 edge at home. The first time the duo would meet the Buccaneers in New Orleans was on October 8th, 2006, just their second game back in the Superdome since the Katrina tragedy over a year before. The Saints scored 17 unanswered points after falling behind by an early touchdown, and would ride the legs of Deuce McAllister, who had 123 yards rushing and a touchdown. A 65-yd. punt return touchdown by rookie running back Reggie Bush in the fourth quarter would provide the decisive margin for the Saints in a 24-21 comeback victory. New Orleans would defeat Tampa on the road later that year to give them their first sweep in this series history, on the way to their first ever NFC South title and first playoff berth in six seasons. The Bucs would sweep the Saints in 2007 though, including a 27-23 win in the dome in a game that saw six lead changes. Future Saint backup quarterback Luke McCown would put the finishing touches on Tampa's comeback with a 4-yd. scoring pass to tight end Jerramy Stevens with only 14 seconds remaining.
The two franchises would split their season series for the next four years, but with each team winning twice in the other squad's stadium. One of them included a Buccaneer upset of the Saints in the Superdome in a rare Saturday NFL contest, on December 27, 2009. New Orleans, who came into the game with a 13-1 record, would race out to a 17-0 second quarter lead over the visitors, who came into the game with a 2-12 record. The Saints would get stagnant after that, allowing Tampa Bay to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. Saints kicker Garrett Hartley would miss a game winning field goal in the final seconds, and the Buccaneers converted a kick of their own in overtime for a 20-17 win. The Saints would have the last laugh over the league in 2009 though, winning Super Bowl XLIV less than two months later. New Orleans would have a 7-game winning streak over Tampa Bay, longest by either team in the series, that began with a 27-16 defeat of the Bucs on November 6, 2011 in the Superdome. The 2012 season contained few bright spots for the Saints, after a league witch hunt that resulted in a yearlong suspension for coach Sean Payton. One positive moment for the team was on December 16, 2012, when the Saints would host the Buccaneers. A New Orleans defense that was laughably bad most of the year would force five turnovers in a 41-0 whitewash of the Bucs, the only shutout by either team and largest margin of victory in this series.
Tampa Bay used the first overall draft choice in 2015 on quarterback Jameis Winston to build their franchise around. Winston has a 1-2 record against the Saints in New Orleans and a 3-4 record against them overall. Winston's second professional start (and first on the road) came against the Saints in New Orleans on September 20, 2015. The Bucs would race out to a 23-7 lead after three quarters, then hold on against a Drew Brees comeback attempt for a 26-19 win and the rookie's first career victory, snapping Tampa Bay's seven game losing streak against New Orleans. The two have continued to split their season contests since, with the Buccaneers shocking the Saints in their last trip to New Orleans.
Tampa Bay rolled up 529 yards of total offense during the 2018 season opener in New Orleans, including 417 yards passing and 4 touchdowns from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who got the start in place of a suspended Winston. The New Orleans secondary was no match for Fitzpatrick and receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, who combined for 293 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns in a 48-40 Buccaneer win. The Saints would exact a measure of payback later in the year, defeating the Bucs in Tampa 28-14 on their way to the NFC South championship. New Orleans must again contend with an explosive Tampa Bay passing attack led by Winston, Evans, and wideout Chris Godwin along with tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. Saints cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple will have key one on one battles with Evans and Godwin. All four players have had standout moments in this series history, with this duel likely to decide the outcome of the game. If the Saints secondary can hold up early in their one on one showdowns, it seems likely that the talented New Orleans defensive line can pressure Winston heavily. Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan has especially been a standout against the Bucs, collecting 11.5 sacks and 21 quarterback hits while forcing 3 fumbles in his last fourteen games against Tampa Bay.
Saints defensive pressure on the Tampa receivers and quarterback will lessen the pressure on a New Orleans offense that's limited without Brees. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has been mistake free in relief of the legendary passer, but the team is not nearly as proficient offensively. The Saints will rely even more heavily on All-Pros Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara for offensive production. Kamara, a third year running back, has averaged nearly five yards per carry while accumulating 192 rushing yards and caught 26 passes for 316 yards and scored 7 touchdowns in four games against Tampa Bay. Thomas, a fourth year wideout, has 47 receptions for 535 yards and a score in five games against the Bucs. The New Orleans offensive line is considered one of the best in the league, and the onus will be on them to protect Bridgewater and open holes for Kamara and the running game to maintain balance. Look for Bridgewater should have his most productive game of the year against the vulnerable Buccaneers secondary if given the time, possibly getting tight end Jared Cook and receiver Ted Ginn Jr. for a well-rounded attack. The New Orleans defense is on a roll, and should be able to shut down the Tampa running game and pressure Winston without blitzing, putting the Saints secondary to make enough plays to make the difference in this early season battle for the NFC South lead.