Win Over Saints is Within Bucs' Control
Hopefully, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a math wizard working somewhere in their front office. Trying to figure out all of the Bucs' various playoff scenarios requires such a genius, as Jon Gruden's club could be anything from the NFC's No. 3 seed in the playoffs to out of the postseason mix altogether by the time Sunday draws to a close.
Instead of trying to figure out all of the vagaries of the playoff picture, the Buccaneers will enter into their regular season finale against the Saints on Sunday simply trying to control what they can, which is beating New Orleans and winning the NFC South title.
The Bucs regained control of their own destiny last week, with their 27-24 overtime win over the Falcons coupled with a Carolina loss to Dallas giving Tampa Bay the upper hand in the NFC South race. Either a Bucs win or a Panthers loss this week will give Gruden's crew their first division title and playoff berth since 2002, when the franchise went on to win the Super Bowl.
The Saints will head to Tampa Bay seeking to end what has been a difficult season on a positive note. New Orleans is just one game back of Houston for the worst record in the NFL, and a Saints loss coupled with a Texans win at San Francisco on Sunday would give the franchise a strong shot at the No. 1 pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.
New Orleans, which was a 13-12 loser to Detroit last Saturday, has lost four straight and 10 of its last 11 contests.
New Orleans has a 17-10 lead in its all-time series with Tampa Bay, but was a 10-3 loser when the teams last faced off, in Baton Rouge, in Week 13. The clubs split a home-and-home last season, with Tampa Bay coming up 20-17 road winners in Week 5 and the Saints returning the favor by winning at Raymond James Stadium, 21-17, in Week 15. The road team has now won the last five games in the series. The Buccaneers' last home win in the series took place in 2001, and the Saints are 3-0 in Tampa since.
Gruden has a 4-4 career record against the Saints, including 3-4 since taking over in Tampa prior to the 2002 season. New Orleans' Jim Haslett is 4-4 against the Bucs as a head coach, and is also 4-4 head-to-head against Gruden.
SAINTS OFFENSE VS. BUCCANEERS DEFENSE
Saints quarterback Todd Bouman (457 passing yards, 1 TD, 5 INT), who has started the last two games in place of the benched Aaron Brooks, has not made anyone forget Archie Manning, Bobby Hebert, or even Brooks himself. Bouman is 0-2 in his two starts, has engineered just one touchdown drive in eight quarters of play, and brings a woeful 46.1 passer rating with him into Week 17. The veteran backup was 21-of-38 for 233 yards without a touchdown or an interception in last week's loss to the Lions. Bouman's favorite targets were tight end Zach Hilton (30 receptions, 1 TD) and wideout Joe Horn (48 receptions, 1 TD), with Hilton catching seven passes for 83 yards and Horn chipping in with six grabs for 70 yards but failing to score his first touchdown since Week 2. Wide receiver Donte' Stallworth (64 receptions, 7 TD), who leads the Saints in all receiving categories, was limited to two catches for 47 yards against Detroit. The New Orleans line allowed Bouman to be sacked just once last week, but has surrendered 37 sacks on the year to date. The Saints are 16th in the league in passing offense (207.2 yards per game).
Bouman will be working against the same Buccaneers secondary that picked Brooks off four times back in Week 13, with three of the interceptions going to Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde' Barber (88 tackles, 5 INT, 2 sacks). Barber had a game-high 13 tackles against Atlanta last week. Elsewhere in the secondary, safety Dexter Jackson (40 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), who also had a pick in the last Saints game, posted his first sack of the season last Sunday. The Tampa Bay pass rush generated a total of four sacks in the contest, including two by end Simeon Rice (38 tackles, 12 sacks). Rice is just a half-a-sack back of the Giants' Osi Umenyiora for the NFC lead in sacks as Week 17 begins. The Bucs are fourth in the league in passing defense (179.6 yards per game).
Though the Saints had done a decent job running the football since starter Deuce McAllister went down with a knee injury early in the season, an acute lack of ground production took some of the blame for last week's loss to the Lions. Three New Orleans running backs combined for just 38 yards on 21 carries, including 33 yards on 13 totes for starter Antowain Smith (604 rushing yards, 3 TD). Backup Aaron Stecker (353 rushing yards, 31 receptions) added just five yards on seven carries, but did catch a couple of passes totaling 13 yards out of the backfield. Smith and Stecker combined for 54 yards on the ground and 56 through the air in their last meeting with the Bucs. The Saints are currently 17th in NFL rushing offense (107.8 yards per game).
The Buccaneers come into Sunday's game ranked seventh in the league in rushing defense (96.3 yards per game), but last week allowed Atlanta's vaunted ground game to pile up 154 yards in a losing effort. Tampa Bay should be able to bounce back against New Orleans and its more conventional style, with linebackers Shelton Quarles (119 tackles, 1 sack), Derrick Brooks (110 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT), and Ryan Nece (71 tackles, 2 sacks) looking to slow Smith and Stecker. Quarles ranked among team leaders with seven tackles versus Atlanta last week, and Brooks posted eight stops to go along with his third sack of the year. Making an impact in the trenches were tackles Chris Hovan (44 tackles) and Dewayne White (30 tackles, 2 sacks), who combined for nine tackles and teamed up to force and recover a Michael Vick fumble. White also made the biggest play of the game on special teams, blocking Todd Peterson's 28-yard field goal try during the overtime session.
BUCCANEERS OFFENSE VS. SAINTS DEFENSE
Seeking to add to his case for NFL Rookie of the Year honors this week will be Tampa Bay running back Cadillac Williams (1097 rushing yards, 6 TD, 20 receptions), who last Sunday became the first Buccaneer since Warrick Dunn in 2000 to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark. Williams carried 31 times for 150 yards and a touchdown in the triumph over Atlanta, his most productive outing since Week 3. Michael Pittman (372 rushing yards, 33 receptions, 2 TD) spelled Williams with four carries for 17 yards, also catching four passes for 17 yards out of the backfield. Fullback Mike Alstott (78 rushing yards, 24 receptions, 7 TD) had three receptions for 32 yards in the win, scoring his seventh touchdown of the year on a 13-yard catch in the second quarter. The Buccaneers rank 16th in NFL rushing offense (111.8 yards per game).
The Saints have struggled to stop the run for much of the 2005 season, ranking 27th in NFL rushing defense (133.1 yards per game) heading into the final week. New Orleans allowed 136 combined ground yards to Williams and Pittman back in Week 13. Last Saturday, the Saints actually did a credible job against the Lions' rushing attack, holding Artose Pinner and Shawn Bryson to a combined 71 yards on 24 carries for the day. Linebackers Colby Bockwoldt (87 tackles), Ronald McKinnon (74 tackles), and Terrence Melton (26 tackles) were at the heart of the effort, with Bockwoldt posting a game-high nine tackles and McKinnon and Melton chipping in with six stops each. The Saints will this week need more productivity from interior linemen and primary run-stoppers Brian Young (49 tackles) and Willie Whitehead (32 tackles, 0.5 sacks), who combined for only three tackles against Detroit.
Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms (1892 passing yards, 8 TD, 7 INT) is fresh off the most prolific outing of his young career, as the third-year pro completed 29-of-42 passes for 285 yards with a pair of touchdowns and two interceptions in the overtime win over the Falcons. Simms hooked up often with No. 1 wideout Joey Galloway (79 receptions, 8 TD), who had eight catches for 97 yards, and tight end Alex Smith (40 receptions, 2 TD) was also active to the tune of eight receptions for 75 yards. No. 2 receiver Michael Clayton (32 receptions) will miss Sunday's game with turf toe, meaning veteran Ike Hilliard (33 receptions, 1 TD) will start in his place. Hilliard had just one catch against the Falcons. Simms' touchdown passes last week went to Alstott and fellow fullback Jameel Cook, with Cook going in from nine yards out in the first quarter. The Buccaneer line has allowed 40 sacks on the season, but gave up just two in close to five quarters versus Atlanta. The Bucs are now 25th in the league in passing offense (183.6 yards per game).
New Orleans comes into Sunday's game ranked fifth in the league in passing defense (180.9 yards per game), but could be without up to two of its top defensive playmakers when it takes the field in Tampa. Defensive end Darren Howard (33 tackles, 3.5 sacks) is already down for the year with a knee injury, and top cornerback Mike McKenzie (46 tackles, 1 INT) is questionable with a groin injury. Ends Will Smith (58 tackles, 8.5 sacks) and Tony Bryant (23 tackles, 4 INT) will anchor the pass rush this week, with Fred Thomas (75 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) and Jason Craft (35 tackles, 3 INT, 1 sack) likely to occupy the corner slots. Smith had the Saints' only sack of Detroit's Joey Harrington last week, and Thomas had the club's lone interception. Elsewhere in the secondary, safety Dwight Smith (65 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack) contributed four tackles to the proceedings.
The Buccaneers won the Week 13 meeting with the Saints by forcing interceptions from New Orleans quarterback Aaron Brooks, and there is little reason to believe that Bouman will fare much better while working against the rock-solid Tampa Bay defense. Look for the Buccaneers to cause some Saints miscues, cash in on enough short fields to jump ahead by a wide margin early, and to cruise into the playoffs with a decisive victory. Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 26, Saints 7