New Orleans (3-2) at Tampa Bay (3-1)
(Sports Network) – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can complete the dual objectives of winning over skeptics and boosting their standing in the NFC South on Sunday, when they welcome the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints to Raymond James Stadium.
The Bucs stand at a surprising 3-1 as Week 6 commences, with last week’s 24-21 win at the Cincinnati Bengals representing another major step forward for a team that is one year removed from a 3-13 disaster.
Emerging quarterback Josh Freeman threw for a season-best 280 yards against the Bengals, with a young receiving corps led by rookie Mike Williams and the also-green Sammie Stroughter and Micheal Spurlock helping to fuel the victory.
Williams and Spurlock had the day’s two biggest catches against Cincinnati, with Williams hauling in the TD pass that helped tie the score at 21-21 late in the fourth quarter and, following a Carson Palmer interception, Spurlock making the sideline grab that set kicker Connor Barth up for a game-winning 31-yard field goal.
The victory kept the Bucs right on the trail of the first-place Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South, and Tampa Bay would be alone in second-place by the end of the day thanks to the failure of this week’s opponent, the Saints, who were 30-20 losers at the Arizona Cardinals.
It looked like the mismatch of the century when Max Hall, the rookie from BYU, was scheduled by the Cardinals to make his first career NFL start against the reigning Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees and the defending champion Saints. But while most expected Gregg Williams’ New Orleans defense to take it to Hall (17-of-27, 168 yards, 1 INT), it was actually Brees who made the major mistakes in the Saints’ defeat. Brees (23-of-39, 279 yards, 2 TD) threw three interceptions, the final one going the other way for a Dominique Rodgers- Cromartie touchdown that snuffed out New Orleans’ final chance.
The Saints have committed nine turnovers in their past three games, and the once-electric offense has fallen to a disappointing 10th in the league in yards and 18th in points, with injuries to running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas effectively sapping the strength of a rushing attack that was Top-10 in the league a year ago.
Defensively, a team that made a living off of turnovers last year has forced multiple miscues just once in five games.
The special teams struggled on Sunday as well, giving up two long kickoff returns to LaRod Stephens-Howling that helped erase New Orleans’ momentum, and also suffering another bad kicking miss, this one from veteran John Carney.
Carney was released earlier this week, with the job handed back to Garrett Hartley. Hartley had been benched after his short field goal miss led to a New Orleans loss to Atlanta in Week 3.
The Buccaneers might have been able to sneak up on the Saints before last week, but Tampa Bay's eye-opening win over a good Cincinnati team, coupled with New Orleans' frustrating loss in Arizona, should guarantee that Payton and Co. come ready to play this time around. The Saints have not played the quality of football in 2010 that we saw last season, but this is still a talented enough team to compete for a division title, and the players and staff know another loss in the division would dig New Orleans into a mighty deep hole. Look for the Saints to cut down on the mistakes this week, and to force some major ones from a Tampa Bay team that is still very wet behind the ears.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 28, Buccaneers 17