6:40 PM EST, FOX – Line: Saints -3, Over/Under: 51.5
The Divisional Round of the Playoffs comes to a close with a matchup that has become rather familiar this season, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints battle for the third time with Mercedes-Benz Superdome once again serving as the venue. No team in the league had undergone more change heading into the 2020 campaign than the Buccaneers (11-5, 2nd in NFC South). No, their power structure remained intact with (General Manager) Jason Licht and (Head Coach) Bruce Arians continuing to man their positions within the organization. The major change however, was none other than the addition of Tom Brady (65.7%, 4,633 YDS, 7.12 NY/A, 40 TD, 12 INT, 72.4 QBR), who put pen to paper on a two-year contract to finish his career in Tampa after spending the previous twenty years with the New England Patriots. Acquiring Brady, even at 43-years old, went a long way towards legitimizing a franchise that had spent the last decade and a half shooting itself in the foot, with the six-time Super Bowl Champion set to change the culture in Western Florida from top to bottom, and it’s no surprise that he has guided them to their first Playoff appearance since 2007 and their first Postseason victory since 2002 (more on that shortly). Credit to Licht and Arians, who have done everything imaginable to accommodate Brady, from acquiring his favored targets, Rob Gronkowski (45 REC, 623 YDS, 13.8 Y/R, 7 TD) and Antonio Brown (45 REC, 483 YDS, 10.7 Y/R, 4 TD), to tweaking the playbook to better suit is talents. As a result, the Bucs have been one of the more prolific passing attacks in the league this season, averaging 30.8 points per game (3rd Overall) on 422.9 total yards (7th Overall), including 298.5 yards through the air (2nd Overall) on 7.1 net yards per attempt (8th Overall). While the Offense was explosive last season, their overall performance was marred by turnovers, committing a league-worst FORTY-ONE in 2019 (Minus-13), but as expected, Brady’s influence has led to a much more efficient approach, with only seventeen turnovers to their credit (Plus-8). After dropping back-to-back games in late November, Arians’ charges made the most of a late Bye Week to string together five straight victories to close the Regular Season, with his veteran Quarterback looking as sharp as ever; over his final four starts, Brady has completed 69.1% of his attempts for an average of 333.3 yards on 9.8 yards per attempt, with twelve touchdowns in comparison to one interception, while taking just five sacks. With that said, he’ll be looking to maintain this form as the Buccaneers battle the Saints, whom they’ve come up short against twice now thus far, with Brady struggling MIGHTILY. Their first encounter was in the Season Opener in the Big Easy, where the hosts raced out to an early 24-7 lead, while Brady completed 23-of-36 passes for 239 yards, with a pair of touchdowns and interceptions along with three sacks in a 34-23 defeat. However, the second affair was by far and away the most stunning, as Tampa was embarrassed in front of a national audience in a 38-3 drubbing at Raymond James Stadium, in which the hosts could muster a scant 194 total yards (including EIGHT rushing yards), with the three-time MVP throwing a season-high three interceptions. On the season, Brady has completed a dismal 60.8% of his passes for an average of 224.0 yards on 5.54 net yards per attempt with two touchdowns and five interceptions and six sacks in the two contests. In 341 career starts (including the Playoffs), Brady has NEVER lost to the same opponent three times in the same season, and remarkably has never even been in position to do so to begin with.
“Certainly a lot to improve on, but great to get a win… If you could win 100-0, it’s going to be the same result in the end. You’d love to play great every game. I think it’s good to win and advance.”Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Quarterback
When we last saw the Buccaneers, they ended an eighteen-year drought in the Playoffs, winning for the first time since January 26th, 2003, which was coincidentally the moment of the franchise’s crowning achievement: winning Super Bowl XXXVII. After adding Brady in the Offseason, Tampa was expected to reach the Postseason, and all things considered they managed to earn what figured to be the most advantageous of matchups. Finishing the Regular Season with the Fifth Seed in the NFC, the Bucs would matchup with the winners of the NFC East, the Washington Football Team, who became just the third team in NFL history to win their division despite having a losing record (7-9). To tip the scales even more in their favor, Washington would be without their Starting Quarterback, Alex Smith, starting Tayler Heinicke, further painting the picture of what should have been a very one-sided affair. However, even though they would secure a 31-23 victory in the nation’s capital, it would be far from easy for Arians’ troops. The visitors started quickly, scoring on four of their first five possessions as Brady connected with the aforementioned Brown for a 36-yard strike late in the First Quarter, followed by a 27-yard score to (Receiver) Chris Godwin (65 REC, 840 YDS, 12.9 Y/R, 7 TD) on the ensuing drive. However, twice they were forced to settle for field goals, while (Kicker) Ryan Succoup missed the extra point after the first touchdown, and Brady failing to breach the end zone on an attempted two-point conversion following the second. Only leading 18-7 at Halftime, their Offense went quiet as the hosts strung together nine unanswered points of their own to cut the deficit to two, before Tampa stretched the lead back to a dozen via another Succoup kick and a three-yard jaunt courtesy of (Tailback) Leonard Fournette (97 CAR, 367 YDS, 3.8 Y/A, 6 TD). Heinicke tossed another score to make it 28-23 with just under five minutes left in the affair, but Succoup would put it out of reach with his fourth field goal of the night. In the end, the Buccaneers amassed 507 total yards with Brady completing 22-of-40 passes for 381 yards and a pair of touchdowns, with the veteran avoiding any calamitous mistakes that may have been caused by Washington’s ferocious defensive front. He was sacked three times, hit on six occasions, and saw four of his passes tipped at the line of scrimmage. The Running Game was a welcome sight for Arians, with the Bucs rushing for 142 yards on twenty-nine carries, marking the eighth time this season that they surpassed 100 yards on the ground, led by Fournette’s ninety-three on nineteen carries. In the Receiving Corps, Godwin was targeted the most (12 times), reeling in five receptions for seventy-nine yards, while (Tight End) Cameron Brate (28 REC, 282 YDS, 10.1 Y/R, 2 TD) made the most of his four catches with eighty yards. However, Mike Evans (70 REC, 1,006 YDS, 14.4 Y/R, 13 TD) was the biggest difference maker on Saturday night, logging 104 yards on six catches despite playing through a lingering knee injury. Defensively, there was no doubt more expected from Tampa, particularly in facing a Backup Quarterback with very limited experience, but they did enough to keep a lid on things, picking Heinicke off once and sacking him twice. (Sophomore Linebacker) Devin White (140 TKL, 15 TFL, 16 QBH, 9.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 4 PD) was held out of the affair after testing positive for COVID-19, and pending a negative test should be available for this third meeting with the Saints. The 22-year old has been an absolute nightmare for opposing Quarterbacks when blitzing, leading the team with nine sacks and sixteen hits.
Meanwhile, for all intents and purposes everything the Saints (12-4, 1st in NFC South) have done has been leading up to these Playoffs. For the fourth consecutive season they’ve reigned atop the NFC South, and for the fourth straight campaign they will be looking to advance to the Super Bowl, and avoid the heartbreaking defeat that has ended each of their past three runs. In 2018 it was the Minneapolis Miracle. In 2019 it was the blown Pass Interference call. In 2020 it was another controversial non-call that sent them home. Indeed, no team in the league has been more successful throughout the Regular Season over the last four years than New Orleans, who have gone 49-15 (.765) during that span, though they don’t have that elusive Lombardi Trophy to show for it. And it’s with that said that the stage was set for 2020 to be their last shot at glory, as aging Quarterback, Drew Brees (70.5%, 2,942 YDS, 7.08 NY/A, 24 TD, 6 INT, 74.5 QBR), signed on for one more season in the Big Easy before finally calling it a career, with the franchise facing Salary Cap Hell in the meantime. Having just turned 42-years old, the 13-time Pro-Bowler has suffered injuries in each of the last two campaigns, though his team has continued to be successful without him; Sean Payton’s charges were 5-0 last season with Teddy Bridgewater under center as Brees nursed a broken thumb, while the Saints managed to go 3-1 with Taysom Hill (72.7%, 928 YDS, 6.23 NY/A, 4 TD, 2 INT, 58.7 QBR) running the show after the franchise’s all-time leading passer suffered eleven broken ribs and a punctured lung. However, since his return to the field, the Saints have managed to win two out of three heading into the Playoffs, with the veteran signal-caller completing 60.9% of his passes for 248.7 yards per game on 7.9 yards per attempt, with six touchdowns and three interceptions to his credit, while the Offense as a unit has logged 38.0 points per game on 405.0 total yards during that span. With all that said, Brees isn’t the only healthy returnee for New Orleans who have also welcomed back the services of All-Pro Receiver, Michael Thomas (40 REC, 438 YDS, 11.0 Y/R, 0 TD), and Pro-Bowl Tailback, Alvin Kamara (270 TCH, 1,688 YDS, 6.3 Y/T, 21 TD). It’s been a disappointing season for Thomas, who after leading the NFL in receptions (149) and receiving yards (1,725) in 2019 was relegated to just seven games this year due to a lingering high ankle sprain suffered midway through the Season Opener against Tampa Bay. Payton kept him out of the final three games as a precaution, while Kamara missed the Finale at the Carolina Panthers following a positive COVID-19 test. The 25-year old saved his best performance of the year for last, as he single-handedly embarrassed the Minnesota Vikings in a 52-33 victory on Christmas Day in which he ran for a season-high 155 yards on twenty-two carries and scored a career-best SIX touchdowns. As you can imagine, each of this triumvirate played a major role for the Saints in their opening Postseason matchup with the Chicago Bears, which thankfully for the faithful down in the Big Easy went about as smoothly as expected.
“The minute that he signed with the Bucs and came to the division, you felt like that was going to be a team to contend with, that was going to be a team that would have playoff aspirations and beyond, just like us… So, I guess it was inevitable.”Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints Quarterback
When we last saw the Saints, they managed to take full advantage of one of the better matchups that they could have faced on Wild Card Weekend, as they bested the Bears in a 21-9 victory that wasn’t even that close. There would be no collapse or blown calls from the referees in this one, folks, as New Orleans took care of business against an inferior opponent that they handled once already during the Regular Season. After punting on their first possession, the hosts out together an eight-play, 55-yard drive culminating with an 11-yard touchdown toss from Brees to Thomas. However, Payton’s troops would waste their next two possessions, as (Kicker) Will Lutz missed a 50-yard field goal and Taysom Hill was strip sacked on the next drive. Fortunately, Chicago couldn’t do much more than kick a field goal of their own, with the home side eventually getting their house back in order as (Tailback) Latavius Murray (146 CAR, 656 YDS, 4.5 Y/A, 4 TD) capped off a twelve-play, 85-yard drive with a six-yard score from Brees. The next drive was more of the drive was more of the same, as the future Hall of Famer engineered a fifteen-play, 64-yard series ending in another touchdown, this time with Kamara rushing it in for three yards, which would be more than enough to see their opponent off the field. In the end it was a dominant display for the Saints, who racked up 385 total yards on twenty-seven first downs, rushing for 123 yards and controlling the clock for a staggering 38:58, converting 11-of-17 third downs in the process. Brees was efficient in completing 28-of-39 passes for 265 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Thomas hauled in five receptions for a seventy-three yards and a score. Kamara rushed for ninety-nine yards and a touchdown on twenty-three carries, while adding a pair of catches for another seventeen yards, with the unheralded Deonte Harris (20 REC, 186 YDS, 9.3 Y/R, 1 TD) totaling seven receptions for a team-high eighty-three yards. Defensively, New Orleans made life miserable for the visiting side, relegating them to a scant 239 total yards on eleven first downs, including a dreadful 1-of-10 on third down. Payton will be counting on his Defense to bring that same level of play once again to this rematch with the Buccaneers, whom they absolutely handled in their two previous meetings; (Defensive Coordinator) Dennis Allen’s charges limited Tampa to an average of 252.0 total yards, including a mere 47.0 yards via the run this season, while getting after the aforementioned Brady like never before with six sacks and five interceptions of the GOAT. And speaking of GOATS, today’s meeting between Brady and Brees will be the first in Playoff history to pit two Quarterbacks over the age of forty against each other. Brees has actually enjoyed quite a bit of success against his counterpart, owning a 5-2 head-to-head record, and completing 64.9% of his attempts for an average of 339.4 yards with eighteen touchdowns opposed to just one interception dating back to 2002. This will mark the first time that these two historic passers, who rank first and second in both all-time passing yards and passing touchdowns, will meet in the Postseason.