When Tampa Bay steamrolled the Saints in Week Two, the surprising result was only a preview of what was to come.
The Buccaneers have proven to be a real force in the NFC South, and currently hold a two-game lead in the division. They had been picked to finish dead last by almost everyone, but resurgent QB Jeff Garcia and a revived defense have Tampa looking like the real deal.
The Saints, for their part, started the season 0-4, digging themselves a sizable hole in the NFC playoff hunt. They've since righted the ship and are now back in contention—but no one would have expected New Orleans to be chasing the Bucs for the South lead at this point in the season.
As it stands, Sunday’s rematch has a lot riding on it.
A win by the Saints would pull New Orleans within one game of the division lead. A Tampa Bay victory could essentially seal the division and a first-round home playoff game.
What's certain is that Jeff Garcia needs to play for the Bucs to have a chance.
In last week’s win over Washington, the Tampa Bay offense failed to get a first down with Garcia out of the lineup. He's as valuable to his team as any other Buc—especially in a game against a potentially high-scoring Saints offense.
Last time these two teams met, Garcia helped Tampa put up 31 points on the Saints defense. Most teams have been able to run up the score against New Orleans, but a Buccaneer offense with no Garcia might struggle.
The Saints’ defense has put its offense in tough positions all year. If Drew Brees doesn’t play lights-out, New Orleans has a hard time keeping up.
During the team's 0-4 start, Brees was nothing like the Pro Bowl quarterback he was a year ago. Not coincidentally, he regained his old form during the Saints’ four-game winning streak.
Part of the problem for the New Orleans offense has been the halting development of Reggie Bush. The second-year back has yet to show the ability to take over a game by himself—and while he poses matchup problems for opponents, he hasn't shown the ability to capitalize.
Deuce McAllister’s injury hurt the Saints in a number of ways, but mostly it forced Bush to grow up too fast. Reggie excels playing on the edge and in space—and becoming an every-down, between-the-tackles back hasn't helped him do that.
Despite his struggles, though, Bush is still a vital part of the New Orleans offense—provided Brees and coach Sean Payton can find ways to get him the ball.
Should the Bucs find a way to pressure Brees and make the Saints offense one-dimensional, Tampa will have success. But this New Orleans team is on the verge of desperation, and can’t afford to give away a winnable home game.
Prediction: Saints 32, Bucs 17
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