Sean Payton and the Saints are still trying to secure a playoff spot.
With two straight losses, New Orleans is reeling. The Saints were beaten by a mediocre St. Louis squad two weeks ago, and they dropped a heartbreaker to divisional rival Carolina in the closing seconds last Sunday.
In order to win the NFC South, New Orleans needs help in the form of an Atlanta victory over the Panthers. Qualifying for the playoffs is priority No. 1, however, and beating the Bucs is usually easier said than done.
Here are five bold predictions for the Saints’ crucial matchup with Tampa Bay this Sunday.
Graham had a big game against the Bucs in Week 2.
Graham has been rather quiet the last few weeks, at least by his standards.
Yes, he had a big fourth-quarter touchdown grab at Carolina last week, but his production (as well as that of the entire Saints offense) has tapered off in the past few games, as opposing defenses have frustrated him with double coverage.
Expect Graham to have a huge game against Tampa Bay.
In the Saints’ Week 2 meeting with the Bucs, Graham was for the most part unstoppable. He hauled in 10 catches for 179 yards and a touchdown. It was his best performance of the season from a yardage standpoint, and there’s no reason it can’t happen again this Sunday.
Simply put, Graham is a bad matchup for the Bucs' safeties and linebackers.
Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano could consider allowing cornerback Darrelle Revis to lock up with Graham in shadow coverage, but that would require the rest of the Buccaneer secondary to play lights-out against New Orleans’ receiving corps.
The Bucs will likely mimic their defensive game plan against the Saints in Week 2 and take their chances with the 6'7" All-Pro tight end. Graham got his share of touches in the 16-14 come-from-behind New Orleans victory, but the Saints were limited to only one touchdown on the day.
Ingram was one of the few brights spots for the Saints offense last week at Carolina.
Since returning from a toe injury in Week 9 against the Jets, Ingram has run the ball with purpose and intensity. He’s averaging 5.7 yards per carry since his return, and he turned in a 145-yard rushing performance against Dallas in Week 10.
Ingram, a first-round pick in 2011, was bordering on being labeled a draft bust heading into the season.
At Alabama, the former Heisman winner often worked his way into a rhythm by collecting the lion’s share of carries. That is difficult to do in New Orleans; coach Sean Payton runs an equal-opportunity offense that involves spreading the ball around to a host of weapons.
Against a stout Panthers defensive front last Sunday, however, Ingram enjoyed consistent success running behind right guard Jahri Evans. He finished with 83 yards on the ground, and his performance won’t go unnoticed in the film room this week.
Look for Ingram to get more carries on Sunday, as the Saints will try to jump-start their struggling offense. With decent blocking up front, he could have a highly productive outing against Tampa Bay.
Glennon has 2,389 yards and 17 touchdowns this season.
The Saints lost starting safety Kenny Vaccaro to a severe ankle injury at Carolina, and the rookie was replaced by Roman Harper. The loss was noticeable on the last drive. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton exploited Harper, and the former Saints starter wasn’t up to task.
The Saints have also played much of the season without opening day starting corner Jabari Greer, who has been replaced in the lineup by the largely inconsistent Corey White.
As for Glennon, the 6’6” Tampa Bay rookie has shown flashes of promise this season. Although his numbers have come down a bit in the past month, he’s thrown for multiple touchdown passes in two of his last three outings and has a 60 percent completion rate for the season.
It’s not unreasonable to think that with Vaccaro out, Glennon could have a big day against a depleted Saints secondary, even with the game being played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Drew Brees was sacked five times at Carolina last week.
The New Orleans offensive line has been under fire for the past couple of weeks, and the criticism is fully warranted. Over the past two games, the unit has allowed an unacceptable 10 sacks.
The group hasn’t had a good year by anyone’s standards. When coming off a particularly subpar outing on the road, however, the line's shown a propensity to respond with a decent game at home.
For instance, after an embarrassing showing on the road against the Jets, the Saints' offensive line bounced back with its best performance of the season at home against Dallas.
The absence of Tampa Bay defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, who’s been placed on season-ending injured reserve, should make things a little easier for the heavily maligned group.
While size, strength and technique are important, effective blocking also involves intensity and desire. The entire New Orleans roster understands the importance of this game, and it isn’t too far-fetched to expect the offensive line to come out fired up and turn in a decent performance.
Rob Ryan's defense surrendered the game-winning score in the final minute last week at Carolina.
At first glance, the 4-11 Bucs visiting New Orleans to face the 10-5 Saints doesn’t seem like a good situation for Tampa Bay. The Superdome is widely recognized as one of the most intimidating venues in the league for a visiting team.
The Saints are struggling offensively, however, and they will also be feeling the pressure of trying to lock down a playoff spot.
The Bucs, on the other hand, have long been devoid of any playoff aspirations. They nearly upset New Orleans earlier this season, and with the way the Saints are sputtering, they’ll likely be confident that they can keep this game close as well.
The fact that Tampa Bay is a divisional rival could also come into play. Unlike many visitors to the raucous Superdome, most of the players on the Bucs' roster are somewhat accustomed to it, and they won’t be intimidated by the Saints’ normally advantageous home environment.
The prognostications discussed above are by no means safe bets, but it isn’t impossible that some of them will play out as predicted this Sunday. The Saints are quite capable of having a good day running and throwing the football, and there's nowhere to go but up for the offensive line.
In addition, it won’t be shocking to see Glennon and the Bucs offense keep the game close against a short-handed New Orleans secondary.
While Tampa Bay will be thrilled to play the role of spoiler, the Saints will undoubtedly be pulling out all the stops in order to secure a playoff berth in this highly important regular-season finale.