It's amazing what a few weeks can change, isn't it?
With significant injuries to their secondary and perhaps losing a little bit of focus, the undefeated Saints have had to rally from behind in three of their last four games and had a close call with another of the Bucs' fellow 1-8 teams, the St. Louis Rams.
Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers seem to have a new hope and have risen from the dead behind rookie first round quarterback Josh Freeman.
Across the league, the team is beginning to be noticed as one that might be finally coming around at at least be more competitive game in and game out.
Can the Buccaneers find a way to shock the league and end the Saints undefeated run?
It's happened before.
Back in 1998, the 7-0 and heavily favored Minnesota Vikings came in to Tampa to face a struggling Bucs team. The Bucs smashed the Vikings that day, the only loss of the season for Minnesota–until the NFC Championship game, that is.
This Bucs team believes anything can happen and with Freeman, they have a chance.
New Orleans leads the series 20-14 but the Buccaneers have won three of their last four meetings, including a 23-20 win over the Saints in their last meeting.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Passing Attack against New Orleans Saints Pass Defense
One of the reasons the Saints are undefeated after nine NFL games is their improved defense. The defense has taken some losses in the injury department in recent weeks, losing both starting corners and strong saftey Darren Sharper.
Sharper and CB Jabari Greer will be game time decisions for the Saints secondary that is ranked 19th against the pass.
The Saints, however, lead the NFL in interceptions with 17–including seven by Sharper.
Meanwhile, the Bucs are a bit revitalized by the emergence of young Josh Freeman, whose brought a little bite to the Bucs passing game.
The Bucs hope to get franchise player Antonio Bryant back in the lineup this week after missing the last two games with his problematic knee.
If Freeman can avoid the turnover–he fumbled four times against Miami, losing one, and was charged for an interception–the Bucs may be able to get some plays against the drained Saints.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Running Attack vs. New Orleans Saints Run Defense
As improved as the Saints defense may be, their run defense still leaves a lot to be desired.
New Orleans is 20th in the league at stopping the run, giving up an average of 115.3 yards per game.
The Bucs still haven't gotten their running game on track, now bottoming down to 25th in the NFL at 98.7 per game. As we say every week, a lot of it is due to the challenges at the quarterback position.
One thing the Bucs may want to consider is opening up with the pass to set up the run.
Tampa Bay has put kid gloves on their budding QB Josh Freeman, opting to ease him into the flow of games by using the running game.
Their opponents expect this and early on have loaded up against the run, causing ineffectiveness and an inability to sustain drives.
The running game will be crucial in this one for the Bucs as they try to keep that top notch New Orleans offense off the field.
New Orleans Saints Passing Game vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Pass Defense
Drew Brees. What more needs to be said about the Saints monstrous passing attack?
New Orleans averages a whopping 275 yards per game passing, best in the NFL.
While the Bucs, of course, lead the NFL in 20 plus yard passing plays surrendered.
Not a good combo if you're a Bucs fan.
The one issue Brees does seem to have in his game, is a Brett Favre-ian gunslinger approach to flinging the ball in to traffic. It can lead to turnovers and the Bucs are one of the best in the league at picking it off.
Unfortunately, the Bucs pedestrian pass rush doesn't help against arguably the league's best quarterback.
Advantage: New Orleans
New Orleans Saints Running Game vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Run Defense
The Bucs run defense is simply abysmal. They can't stop anyone. With trouble rushing the passer and stopping the run, Bucs Head Coach Raheem Morris called out his front seven, saying this week he doesn't believe he has the players up front to be successful.
It will be interesting to see how the Bucs' players respond to that challenge.
Will they try to prove him wrong or will they say, "I've been bustin' my butt for you for nine games - to heck with you, Raheem"?
The Saints bring in the league's fifth best rushing attack.
Behind the trio of Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush, and Mike Bell, the Saints runners have provided balance to the formidable passing attack.
The Bucs may catch a break as the versatile Bush is listed as questionable for Sunday.
Advantage: New Orleans
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Special Teams vs. New Orleans Saints Special Teams
They say three times a charm, and the Bucs, on their third kicker of 2009, may have finally found a winner in Connor Barth. Barth became only the fourth kicker in NFL history to bang three 50-plus field goals in one game.
With Barth's big time leg, the decent punting of Dirk Johnson, plus top level coverage and return units, it's difficult for any team to match up with the Bucs Special Teams unit.
The Saints are dead last in kick coverage and aren't much better covering punts.
They're a middle of the road return team in both kick returns and punt returns, although Courney Roby broke through for New Orleans last week with a kickoff return for a touchdown.
Veteran John Carney is New Orleans place kicker, while little used punter Thomas Moorestead holds down the fort in the punting game.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
- The Saints are 9-0 for the first time in franchise history.
- 40% chance of rain is in the forecast for Sunday's game.
- The Bucs have won seven of the last eleven meetings with New Orleans.
- Since joining together in the NFC South in 2002, the Bucs have swept the Saints twice. The Saints have also swept the Bucs twice and the teams have split the season series three times.
- Like the Packers before them, the Saints must guard against looking ahead. New Orleans faces the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football next week.
- New Orleans has played three outdoor games this season, going 3-0 and winning by an average of 19.3 per game.
Raheem Morris is in his first season as an NFL head coach and is now 1-8.
Sean Payton is in his fourth season as the Saints head coach. Payton is 34-23, he has led the Saints to one division championship during his tenure.
Advantage: New Orleans
If the Bucs were to ever catch the Saints at a good time - this would be the week. New Orleans is hurting and isn't playing their best football right now.
They've managed to maintain their undefeated status despite having several close calls, including last week's nail-biter against the awful St. Louis Rams.
The Bucs players look at that Rams film and think to themselves, "Heck, if they can do it - why not us?"
Well, there's a big difference between being a bad team outside your opponent's division and a bad team within that division. Considering the Bucs history against them, the Saints won't overlook them as Miami and Green Bay may have.
Furthermore, it's the Saints. Arguably the best offensive football team in the NFL facing one of the league's worst defenses.
If New Orleans doesn't put up 40 points in this one, it's a testament to the improvement of the Bucs defense. Heck, the Saints put up 48 points on the Giants' defense.
Yes, the same Giants defense that held the Buccaneers offense without a first down for three quarters and without a point for the game.
With young Josh Freeman, this football team feels they have a chance in every game. It's tough to refute that, considering the results of the first two games.
If the weather is foul, the Bucs may have a chance to stay in this one. If not, then even the charisma of Freeman may not be enough to keep it close.
Final Score: New Orleans 34, Tampa Bay 20.