The New Orleans Saints find themselves faced with a bit of a dilemma heading into its regular-season finale with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Their opponent, on the other hand, has no such reservations about the mindset it will have to take when taking the Superdome field this coming Sunday.
Although the Saints are assured of a spot in the upcoming NFC Playoffs, they can be slotted into two very different positions depending on the outcome of this weekend’s games. New Orleans still has a chance to earn the conference’s coveted No. 1 overall seed, but that’s contingent on the powerhouse Atlanta Falcons losing at home to the Carolina Panthers, owners of the league’s worst overall record, on Sunday.
If the Panthers are able to pull off the upset and the Saints defeat the Buccaneers, New Orleans will have home-field advantage throughout the NFC tournament as well as a greatly-desired bye for next week’s opening round. If the more likely scenario of the Falcons prevailing occurs, however, the reigning world champs would be seeded fifth and travel to the winner of the NFC West (either St. Louis or Seattle) in a Wild Card matchup on either Jan. 8 or 9.
The Atlanta-Carolina game will be going on at the same time as the Saints’ battle with the still-alive Buccaneers, meaning there’ll be plenty of scoreboard-watching taking place on the New Orleans sideline when the team competes.
New Orleans kept its chances of claiming both the NFC South and No. 1 seed possible by knocking off the division-leading Falcons in a 17-14 thriller Monday at the Georgia Dome, ending Atlanta’s eight-game winning streak in the process. The triumph was the seventh in the past eight outings for the Saints and a strong bounce-back from a 30-24 setback at Baltimore the previous week.
Saints head coach Sean Payton has stated he’ll be playing to win Sunday’s contest, but took a similar public stance prior to last year’s Week 17 tilt at Carolina. He then decided to either rest or limit the time of several starters, most notably quarterback Drew Brees, with New Orleans already having locked up the NFC’s top seed.
The Saints went on to lose to the Panthers — their third straight defeat to conclude the regular season — but Payton’s approach still paid off. New Orleans regained momentum during the playoffs and ripped off three consecutive victories to capture the franchise’s first-ever Lombardi Trophy.
For the Buccaneers, the message is much clearer — win Sunday’s game and your playoff hopes will remain intact. Tampa Bay still needs considerable help in order to seize the NFC’s final Wild Card berth, however, as Green Bay and the New York Giants also have to lose on Sunday in order for the Bucs to extend their season.
The Packers host NFC North champ Chicago and the Giants travel to Washington, with both games being held during the later portion of Sunday’s schedule.
Tampa Bay kept itself in the discussion by dominating wayward Seattle last Sunday, getting a career-high five touchdown passes out of young quarterback Josh Freeman and a personal-best 164 rushing yards from rookie running back LeGarette Blount en route to a 38-15 rout.
Though their goal of reaching the postseason may be difficult to attain, the Buccaneers can still achieve a couple of other objectives by besting the Saints. A win would give Tampa Bay double-digit victories for the first time since 2005 and disprove the notion that the up-and-coming club isn’t yet ready to seriously challenge the league’s heavyweights.
The Bucs are 0-5 against teams that currently possess a positive record in 2010, which includes a 31-6 thrashing by New Orleans in Tampa during Week 6. The Saints outgained the Buccaneers by a 475-277 margin in total yards that day, with Brees throwing for three touchdowns to lead the way.
There’s little doubt the Saints are more skilled and proven than the still- developing Buccaneers, and would be a consensus pick in most weeks. This may not be like most weeks, however, due to the likelihood that New Orleans will be jumping right into the postseason fray shortly after Sunday’s contest. The Saints will treat this game normally at the start, but if Atlanta begins pulling away in its matchup, don’t be surprised if Payton winds up giving some of his stars an early exit with an eye towards next week. That may be the opening that Tampa Bay, which will be going all out with its playoff lives at stake, needs to obtain a victory it desperately needs. Freeman’s made a history of orchestrating fourth-quarter comebacks during his brief pro career, and this could be another of those times.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 24, Saints 20