Thursday, November 19, 2009

Week Eleven Preview: The Important Game Is THIS Sunday, NOT Next Sunday

The early “10-0 to New England” talk from two weeks ago has subsided with the scare the one win Saint Louis Rams gave the undefeated New Orleans Saints this past Sunday.

After last week, a one-and-eight opponent is as worrisome to Saints fans in 2009 as third-and-one for a first down was for them in 2008.

And while the game on everyone’s mind is against the vaunted New England Patriots, a team the Saints play at home only once every eight years, the seemingly lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers is a far more important opponent than the supermen of the northeast if only because of the post-season consequences.

Though the Saints are virtually a lock to win the NFC South as the Atlanta Falcons trail the Black and Gold by 4.5 games with only 7 left in the season, the Dirty Birds are still in contention and if they were to run the tables and the Saints were to collapse then the division record tie-breaker could drop New Orleans to wild-card status.

I know this is as likely as Jonathan Sullivan being inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame but I’m also the kind of Saints fan that won’t yell “Who Dat” at a game until it’s practically over.

I’ve seen the Joe Montana-era Forty-Niners do far too many dreadful things to the Saints of my youth to take anything for granted.

The Tampa Bay contest counts more than the New England MNF match-up because it’s a conference game. Currently the Saints have a one game lead over the Minnesota Vikings for home-field advantage in the NFC. Unfortunately for the Saints, Minnesota’s single loss is to an AFC opponent so in the event the Saints lose to the Buccaneers and the Vikings win on Sunday, New Orleans would drop to second in the NFC because of the conference tie-breaker rule.

The Match-Up

Despite struggling with turnover and failing to make first downs late in the game against the Rams, the New Orleans Saints have the top offense in the NFL. Tampa Bay has the 28th ranked offense. The Saints’ defensive woes have them rated 21st in defense, though the squad is still better than the 29th ranked defense. The Buccaneers rank 25th in points scored with an average of 17.4 per game.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees needs to be wary of cornerback Aquib Talib, who has snagged 5 interceptions this season, 2 fewer than Saints safety Darren Sharper.

The Black and Gold defense needs to contain tight end Kellen Winslow, who leads the Buccaneers in receptions with 42 (twice as many than the team’s second leading receiver) and in yards with 454. Winslow also leads the team in touchdowns scored with 5.
The good news is that Tampa Bay’s running game isn’t as fearsome as that of the Saints’ last three opponents. The Buccaneers’ leading running back is Cadillac Williams with 418 yards, averaging an unimpressive 3.9 yards per carry. Williams’s longest run for the season is 35 yards so the Saints’ first-half run defense won’t be as challenged as they were against the likes of Michael Turner, Ricky Williams, DeAngelo Williams and Steven Jackson.

The biggest run threat the Saints have to worry about is that of Tampa Bay’s rookie starting quarterback Josh Freeman. The 21-year old first-round draft pick has lit a fire under the team since starting two weeks ago, picking up the Buccaneer’s only win against the Green Bay Packers.

Freeman has run for 60 yards in his last 3 games. Expect a few Tampa Bay first-downs to be made by Freeman’s feet and not his arm against a Saints defense that has not brought a whole lot of pressure against opposing quarterbacks.

Freeman has completed half of his passes, thrown 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. The Kansas State product has also been sacked 7 times in his last 3 games.

The Oddsmaker’s Take: To Lay or Not to Lay the Points

Danny Sheridan has the Saints as an eleven-point favorite. On one hand, Tampa Bay’s lack of an offensive threat (at least the Rams have a top-tier running back in Jackson) and poor defense screams of a Saints rout, with so much of the Saints’ scoring defense probably riding the pine and their recent turnover struggles, a double-digit spread can make a betting man uneasy.

The Saints should have done victory laps around the Edward Jones Dome last week but costly errors, including two Brees picks and wide receiver Marques Colston’s fumble into the endzone made the game closer than it should have been.

That said, Tampa Bay is not as good of a team as Saint Louis. What should be of concern is the weather: a 30% chance of thunderstorms on Sunday. The Saints debacle in Raymond James Stadium last year was in the midst of a small monsoon where head coach Sean Payton unwisely called for passes that led to multiple Brees interceptions in the final minutes of the game.

As Tampa is 31st in run defense, giving up an average of 167.3 yards on the ground, running backs Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell have an opportunity to rebound from their disappointing performances in Saint Louis. Running back Reggie Bush, who had his best game of the season against the Rams, will see little if any action on Sunday as he continues to deal with knee issues.

The Saints are due for a breakout game and if the defense can cover Winslow and not make Freeman look like Michael Vick, then the Black and Gold should beat the spread even with some of their defensive stars healing up on the sideline.

Last week’s game wasn’t supposed to be close; this one shouldn’t be close.

Getting By with a Little Help from the ‘Fins

The Miami Dolphins’ defeat of Carolina Panthers on NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football puts the Cats 5.5 games behind the Saints in the NFC South and all-but ending whatever shot they had at winning the division. Carolina will join Tampa Bay as officially eliminated if the Saints win two games or if the Panthers lose one more. In the best case scenario, the Panthers will need to run the table or go 5-1 with help just to get a wild card spot.

The “sick old man” of the NFC South is likely heading to “rebuilding” status next season with major changes in store.

Tie-Breakers Galore

If the Saints beat the Bucs, I’ll provide a list of home-field tie-breaker scenarios next week.

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