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Divisional Round NFL Playoff Preview: Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. New Orleans Saints

Mike Tanier dissects the players to watch and key elements to the Buccaneers vs. Saints Divisional Round tilt in the 2020-2021 NFL Playoffs.

Divisional Round NFL Playoff Preview: Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. New Orleans Saints
TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 08: Tom Brady (12) of the Bucs throws a pass during the regular season game between the New Orleans Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on November 08, 2020 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Here’s NFL Recap’s first-look preview of the NFC Divisional Round contest between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. the New Orleans Saints, scheduled for 6:40 PM ET on Sunday, January 17th (FOX/FOX Deportes).

Editor’s Note: For the rest of Mike Tanier’s individual NFL Divisional Round playoff previews, make sure to check out his full NFL Wild Card Recap. Not only does he give in-depth breakdowns of each game, but he also provides you with his Studs ‘n’ Duds.

The backdrop to the Buccaneers vs. Saints matchup

It’s very difficult to defeat the same opponent three times in one season. It’s very difficult to defeat Tom Brady in the playoffs. So it will be very, very, VERY difficult for the New Orleans Saints to defeat Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the third time this season next week in the divisional round.

Related | When do the 2021 NFL playoffs start? Updated schedule and start times

For the Saints to complete their hat trick vs. the Buccaneers, they’ll need another outstanding game from their defense. They’ll need another step-up performance from Alvin Kamara (like his 116 total yard effort in Sunday’s 21-9 win over the Chicago Bears, only better). In addition, they’ll need some flawless game management from Drew Brees in what’s shaping up to be the final postseason of his career.

It sounds like a tall order, but the Saints swept the season series by a combined 72-26 score. The Buccaneers, on the other hand, hardly looked unbeatable in Saturday’s 31-23 victory over the Washington Football team.

How the New Orleans Saints got here

Zzzzzzzzzzzz. [Yawn] Oops, sorry — NFL Recap fell asleep with the Saints leading 7-3 at halftime. Yep, it was that kind of game. The Chicago Bears couldn’t move the ball at all, but the Saints kept them in the game thanks to a missed Will Lutz field goal and a Taysom Hill strip-sack.

The Saints slowly pulled away with 12 and 15-play touchdown drives against a gassed defense as Mitch Trubisky and the Bears offense flatlined. A meaningless late goal-line stand and a 99-yard drive by the Bears in garbage time made the final score closer than the game itself. It also made a game that already felt like it was 45 minutes too long even longer.

Nevertheless, the Saints moved on to the NFC Divisional Round as expected.

How the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got here

Saturday night’s 31-23 victory over the Washington Football Team was tougher than it had to be. The Buccaneers settled for field goals a little too often, failed on an extra point and a two-point conversion, and fumbled at the end of a drive. Most importantly, they were caught off-guard by fourth-string Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke’s ability to move around the pocket without crutches and throw more than five yards downfield.

But in the end, Tom Brady just had too many weapons. Players showed up like wide receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown, tight end Cameron Brate, and running back [double checking notes] Leonard Fournette? Really?

What we learned about the Buccaneers this week

Brady and the offense command so much attention that it is easy to overlook the Buccaneers pass rush. They ranked second to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the regular season with a 27.0% pressure rate against opposing quarterbacks (per Pro Football Reference).

Coordinator Todd Bowles doesn’t just rely upon Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, and the defensive line. Bowles turns up the heat by blitzing on 39.0% of pass plays, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL. Look for Bowles to dial up some blitzes against a rickety Brees and a Saints’ offense with no consistent receiving threats besides Michael Thomas.

What we learned about the Saints this week

The Bears were 0-9 on third-down conversions until their meaningless final drive. But for the Saints (and for most successful defenses), great third-down defense begins on first and second downs.

Football Outsiders ranked the Saints fifth in first-down defense, fourth on second downs, and seventh on third downs during the regular season. Mitch Trubisky seemed to be facing 3rd-and-8 all afternoon on Sunday. Brady doesn’t scoff at unfavorable down-and-distance situations the way he did 10-15 years ago. A defense that forces him into 3rd and long can force him to make a mistake.

New Orleans Saints’ player to watch

Slot cornerback Chauncey Gardner-Johnson goaded Anthony Miller into throwing a punch (and getting ejected) on Sunday. Previously, Gardner-Johnson got Miller’s teammate Javon Wims to take a swing at him in Week 8. And, let us not forget that he was involved in the practice altercation that got Michael Thomas suspended by the Saints earlier in the season.

Setting aside the possibility that he could get Antonio Brown so worked up that Brown dumps Joker toxin into Gotham River, Gardner-Johnson is a boom-or-bust defender who could generate a sack when blitzing or break up a critical pass. Yet, he could also get flagged for pass interference or whiff on a tackle at the worst possible moment.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ player to watch

Fournette is the running back that the cool kids on the internet love to hate. He’s a bruiser whom the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted too high and relied upon too much before unceremoniously cutting after three years.

Fournette had a mostly forgettable season in the Buccaneers’ running back rotation. On the season, he had 357 yards, just 3.8 yards per carry — lots of three-catch, 16-yard-type afternoons as a receiver (with several dropped passes).

But with LeSean McCoy out due to illness and Ronald Jones suffering a quad injury on the opening drive on Saturday, Fournette stepped up with 93 rushing yards and one touchdown. He also added four receptions for 39 yards and some spin-cycling, tackler-dragging highlights.

Tom Brady has counted on backs like LeGarrette Blount and Sony Michel to serve as his playoff battering rams in years past. Don’t be shocked if Fournette plays a similar role down in the NFC Divisional Round.

Buccaneers vs. Saints bottom line

Here’s the problem with the NFC playoff field. We’ve all seen Brees’ playoff loss heartbreakers on bad calls or late-game blunders. Additionally, we’ve seen Aaron Rodgers get sabotaged in the playoffs by the Green Bay Packers’ run defense. We’ve seen Jared Goff and the Los Angeles Rams’ offense dissected in the Super Bowl.

It’s true we’ve seen Brady lose a few playoff games, but that’s not exactly what he’s known for. Brees and Rodgers have Super Bowl rings, but Brady is the only quarterback in the conference who doesn’t have a reputation for playoff disappointments. He was cleaning up in the AFC while Brees, Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, Goff, and others took turns handing each other disappointments.

Look beyond Brady’s reputation and his marquee supporting cast. The Saints have a better defense, better offensive line, and a better track record in 2020 against quality opponents.

Yet, “looking past” Brady, Evans, Rob Gronkowski, and the rest seems like a bad idea. Especially when Brees looks so banged up that he might be ready for his second career as a sandwich mogul. Then again, Brady is the one who looks washed up every time he faces the Saints.

No matter what happens next weekend in this NFC Divisional Round matchup, this may be the last Brady-Brees meeting. There were too few of them over the last two decades. Let’s make sure to enjoy this one. This Buccaneers vs. Saints matchup should be memorable.

Early Prediction: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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