NFL 2020 Divisional Round: Buccaneers at Saints

The New Orleans Saints hope to extend Drew Brees’ career at least another week by completing the season sweep of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

For previews of Saturday’s games, click here.

For Browns-Chiefs, click here.

Buccaneers at Saints (-3)

Let’s get the 3-0 sweep part out of the way first with New Orleans looking to put the cherry on top of their 34-23 win in Week 1 and 38-3 win in Week 9 over Tampa Bay this season.

Going for the 3-0 Sweep

Yes, it is hard to beat a playoff team three times in one season. Beating a playoff team once is usually harder than average, and then to do it three times to a team that has to come from your division, who knows you so well, is certainly a tough task.

But the only time we ever talk about this is when a team has already won the first two games. By the playoffs, the brooms are already two-thirds of the way out.

Since the merger, a team has gone for the three-game sweep 21 times and is 14-7 at pulling it off. The sweep happens two-thirds of the time. It just so happens that the 2017 Saints are the last team to pull it off against Carolina, winning the NFC wild card game 31-26.

That was a good playoff win for the 2017 Saints when you consider that the home team is 1-5 in the last six playoff games between division rivals regardless of how the regular season series went. As we just saw with the Steelers-Browns in Week 17 and the wild card round, these rematches can look dramatically different, so the Saints cannot take too much faith in Week 9’s 38-3 obliteration of Tampa Bay.

Some other facts from this table:

  • The 2020 Saints outscored Tampa Bay by 46 points so far, the largest scoring differential for all 22 series.
  • The three teams with the largest scoring differential before the Saints went 0-3 in the playoffs: 1989 Oilers vs. Steelers (+34), 1994 Vikings vs. Bears (+34), and 1998 Cowboys vs. Cardinals (+35).
  • Those same three teams all happened to have the largest Game 1 margin of victory, winning Game 1 by 27+ points, only winning Game 2 by 6-7 points, and then 0-3 in the playoffs.
  • It would appear dominating the earliest matchup in the season has less relevancy for the playoffs.
  • The three teams who won Game 2 by 17+ points were 3-0 in the playoffs with a double-digit win each time (1999 TEN-JAX, 2000 NYG-PHI, 2009 DAL-PHI).
  • New Orleans’ 38-3 win in Game 2 over Tampa Bay is the largest margin of victory in any of the 65 games in the chart.
  • The only three teams before the 2020 Saints to win both games by double digits were 2-1 in the playoffs with wins for 2000 Giants-Eagles and 2017 Saints-Panthers and a loss for the 2007 Cowboys-Giants.
  • The 2-0 team is 7-5 in the wild card round, 3-1 in the divisional round, and 4-1 in the conference championship.

Basically, the only example that really compares to what Tampa Bay is trying to do here is the 2007 Cowboys-Giants. That’s the only one where a team lost both games by double digits before winning on the road in the playoffs. That’s also the only one where the 0-2 road team won after the wild card round. When the 1983 Seahawks lost to the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game, that game was played in Los Angeles because the Raiders (12-4) were a better team than Seattle (9-7), which just happened to get the best of them in the regular season before upsetting a rookie Dan Marino as well in the divisional round that year.

New Orleans having a home letdown in the playoffs wouldn’t be a new story, but the Saints are better than the Buccaneers.

Or are they?

So Which Team Is Better?

Thanks a lot, COVID-19, for this weird season. The Steelers were the last unbeaten at 11-0 and led the league in scoring differential for a while until falling off hard. Baltimore finished No. 1 in scoring differential despite only going 11-5 and No. 7 in DVOA (but No. 3 in SRS at Pro Football Reference). The Chiefs had the best record locked up with 14 wins before resting starters and getting their ass pointlessly kicked by the Chargers, so they finished 6th in DVOA, 6th in SRS, and not even in the top five for points scored. Green Bay scored the most points but finished No. 5 in SRS and No. 3 in DVOA. Buffalo is basically the Josh Allen cautious wave meme here, just chilling in the crowd.

Yet the place where DVOA and SRS seem to agree this season is that the Saints are No. 1 and the Buccaneers are No. 2, and the margin between the two isn’t that great despite the scoreboard difference in their first two meetings this season.

Frankly, I don’t know what to make of these numbers. I wish I had a better explanation for what the advanced stats sees in the Saints and Bucs this year. I think the Chiefs and Packers are more reliable to score points and win games this season. I think the Ravens are scarier to play than the Bucs or Saints. I think the 13-3 Bills, who have one loss on a Hail Mary and another to the Chiefs, have played better football than those teams as well this year.

Here are some things I do know the Saints and Buccaneers share in common this season:

  • Both lost to the Chiefs by three points after trailing by 14+ points.
  • Both had a 17-point comeback win in October over the Chargers, who hand those out as freely as mints on hotel pillows.
  • Both swept the Falcons and Panthers, who couldn’t win a close game to save their lives.
  • Both helped put the Vikings out of their misery in December. Alvin Kamara scored six touchdowns and it felt like Dan Bailey missed six kicks when he played Tampa Bay.
  • Both got to play in arguably the two biggest COVID farces of 2020: Saints beat Denver 31-3 after the Broncos were told the day before the game that none of their quarterbacks were eligible to play. They had to start a practice squad wide receiver at quarterback and completed one pass. The Buccaneers destroyed a Detroit team 47-7 in Week 16 after much of the coaching staff was out for COVID on short notice. It got so bad that Blaine Gabbert came in the third quarter and still threw two touchdowns on his first six throws.
  • Tampa Bay also sort of won in Denver without facing a quarterback when the Broncos played Jeff Driskel and Brett Rypien in Week 3.
  • Both beat a cupcake in the NFC wild card after the Buccaneers drew the 7-9 Washington No Names with MAGA Heinicke pulling out a 300-yard game on them, and the Saints jogged through a 21-9 win over Mitchell Trubisky and the 8-8 Bears.

Where did the Buccaneers and Saints differ this year?

  • New Orleans lost in the Raiders’ first game in Las Vegas while the Buccaneers pulled away late in a 45-20 win.
  • The Saints beat the Bears in overtime while Tampa Bay lost to Nick Foles in October.
  • Tampa Bay destroyed Green Bay’s No. 1 offense in a 38-10 victory while the Saints lost 37-30 at home following some Taysom Hill Hijinks.

And isn’t that always the difference this year when we talk about Tampa Bay? It’s that 38-10 Green Bay game, Tampa Bay’s only win against a team with a winning record. Otherwise, they are 0-4 against the Saints, Chiefs, and Rams, and even lost to the 8-8 Bears. The once 0-13 Jets still have more wins (two) against winning teams this year than the Buccaneers (one).

That is why Tampa Bay feels like such a paper tiger to me this year. They fatten their stats, especially on offense, in recent weeks against the Falcons (twice) and Lions, and then they draw a Jack Del Rio defense in the playoffs. Tom Brady has destroyed Del Rio his whole career and last week was more of the same with Washington leaving receivers wide open and getting minimal pressure.

So is Tampa now peaking, or is it just heavily related to the opponents? When they last played legitimate playoff teams in the Rams and Chiefs, they lost 27-24 at home in both games, outgained and outplayed.

For a team with some gaudy stats, the Buccaneers have had a lot of rough patches this season, rarely able to put in a complete game effort until recent weeks. In fact, the Buccaneers have five games this season where they trailed by at least 17 points, something Brady rarely experienced in New England.

They were able to come back and beat the Falcons and Chargers, because of course they were. That’s what those teams do. But Tampa didn’t beat the Chiefs or Saints in the other three games. Tampa Bay has trailed by 17+ in more games this season than the Packers, Chiefs, Bills, and Ravens combined as those teams have one game each. The Saints have two, and the Rams and Browns have three each.

This got me curious. How many games would you expect a legitimate Super Bowl team to fall behind by at least 17 points during a season? So I dug out the answer back to 1994, the start of the salary cap and two-point conversion era. As it turns out, Tampa Bay would be the highest.

The Super Bowl winner averages 1.4 such games a season and the Super Bowl loser averages 2.0 games a season.

No Super Bowl teams since the 2009 Colts and Saints have had more than two three-score deficits in the regular season. Even that’s misleading as both teams rested their starters in Week 17 to tally a third. The 2012 49ers actually had two in a row in the playoffs, but came back to beat the Falcons (duh) before losing to the Ravens in the Super Bowl. The 1994 Chargers, 1998 Falcons, 2000 Giants, 2002 Raiders, 2010 Steelers, and 2013 Broncos also had their last one of the season in the Super Bowl loss.

The only Super Bowl winner with a legitimate three games of trailing by 17+ is the 2007 Giants, which might not surprise you. The 2011 Giants played high-scoring, close games, but the 2007 Giants got their ass kicked a few times. Funny how this is the second time we’re bringing them up as the hopeful comparison for a Brady team since his 2007 Patriots are responsible for those Giants’ spot in lore.

The 2006 Colts, 2016 Patriots, and 2019 Chiefs are the only teams to win a Super Bowl after trailing by 15+ points in the playoffs. That is true for all time and not just since 1994. You know which games…

Green Bay may very well be the next challenge for the winner of this game, but for this week, it comes back to the crowning achievement of New Orleans’ season to this point: sweeping Tampa Bay.

Third Time the Charm?

If anything, the Saints should be expected to pull off this sweep, and FiveThirtyEight actually has them at 71% to win with an Elo point spread of -6 instead of the game’s -3 spread.

Yet why do I have this terrible feeling that Brees will have to go out having one postseason (2009) in his career with multiple wins?

Oh yeah, it’s the playoffs, and the rationing of luck among Tom Brady and every other great quarterback of this generation feels like this:

I bitch about Brady getting multiple chances to lead one late scoring drive to win a game. Now he’s getting a third chance to beat the Saints one time, and it may come in the way that I have dreaded since the 2018 season.

Sean Payton, here’s your opportunity to hand Brady a playoff win after going to Taysom Hill with the game on the line. Please don’t use it.

Jokes aside, thirteen months ago, I wrote about the lack of luck Brees has had in his career, especially in comparison to Brady. I pointed out how just five plays in his career that had nothing to do with him could have drastically altered things to the point where he might be 5-0 in Super Bowls, with a few wins over Brady himself, and going for a sixth ring this year.

Instead, Brees is 9-8 in the playoffs, meeting Brady there for the first time, and it’s probably his last game ever if he loses it. Even with a win on Sunday, there will always be some disappointment there.

So what can change from the first two meetings? I watched them both live and the Saints were absolutely the better team. I was behind the argument that Week 1 wasn’t that telling with Brady making his Tampa Bay debut after no real offseason or preseason. Brees and the offense actually weren’t that great at all in that matchup either. He struggled to move the ball too, but Brady threw a pick-six and struggled after the opening drive.

Flash forward to Week 9. The Saints were grinding out close wins against so-so teams. The Buccaneers were a few weeks removed from 38-10. They just activated Antonio Brown, because god knows you have to give the GOAT four different 1,300-yard receivers to make this offense shine. I picked the Buccaneers to win that rematch, and I couldn’t have been any more wrong.

That 38-3 game was the most one-sided domination I watched this season. It was about as perfect a game as you can have on offense and defense. Brady wasn’t able to complete passes, he started throwing interceptions, the Saints were getting anything they wanted on offense. Only some mistakes by Jared Cook kept that from being 45-0 at halftime. Tampa had to kick a cheap field goal late to avoid the shutout. The Buccaneers set an NFL record with only five rushing attempts. It was incredible.

But now, what changes this week?

Brees had his rib injury start in the Tampa Bay game. He missed four games, but he’s about to make his fifth start in a row. He had that really rough start against the Chiefs before finding his way back later in the game. In the last three weeks, he’s pretty much back to where he was, leading an effective offense again that is finally healthy with Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders ready to play. The funny thing is with all those guys together, the Saints went to Deonte Harris for seven catches and 83 yards against the Bears on Sunday. Was that a way to not show their hand to Tampa Bay about what they might do with their normal offense in a third matchup this week? It was interesting and Harris looked good after doing almost nothing this season.

The Saints can score on this defense, but we know Todd Bowles loves to blitz. Brees faced his highest blitz count in the two Tampa games this year. He was sacked once in each game and hasn’t had a pressure rate above 23% in any game this season according to Pro Football Reference.

For Brady and the Bucs, can the Saints get to him again? They sacked him three times in both games and had a season-high 36.6% pressure rate in the 38-3 game. The Buccaneers usually protect well but have not done so against the Saints yet. Brady has also thrown five of his 12 interceptions this season against New Orleans.

While the argument of Week 1 rust didn’t work out for Tampa Bay last time, could the argument of Antonio Brown’s progress work this time? His first game was 38-3 and clearly it took some time for them to figure this offense out. Brown took Scotty Miller’s snaps after Miller started the season so well with making deep catches. Brown didn’t seem to click until he caught a touchdown bomb to beat the Falcons (of course) in Week 15. He has now scored in four straight games and looks more like the receiver we’re familiar with.

Brown’s impact could be huge if Mike Evans has his usual disappearing act in the Superdome. Evans has four games in his career with fewer than 10 receiving yards. Three of them are in New Orleans, including 2 yards in Week 1. He also had a 1-of-6 game with 13 yards in 2017. When you stack that many bad games against an opponent, it can’t just be a coincidence. This looks good for corner Marshon Lattimore, but he can only guard one guy. The Buccaneers still have Brown, Chris Godwin, Gronk, Miller, and even Cameron Brate reminded us he’s still there with 80 yards against Washington last week.

This offense just has too many weapons, and if they would ever play to their full potential, this team could go the distance. But they have to get over their biggest hump so far this year. Does Brees finally have a defense to rally around him and prevent his retirement before another ring? The Saints did not allow a 300-yard passer this season and are one of three defenses in 2020 (Rams and Steelers) to allow fewer than 275 net passing yards in all 17 games. That hasn’t been done since the 2006 Colts did not allow 250 net passing yards in a record all 20 of their games on their way to a Super Bowl win. Even though you can run on that team, which you usually can’t on these Saints, I am a bit shocked I only discovered this stat on January 15, 2021.

Nostalgia aside…

I hate to say it, but part of me expects Payton to do something really stupid in this game that gives Tampa Bay the edge. Don’t forget Bruce Arians is 32-26-1 (.551) in 4QC/GWD opportunities, so he’s had his own magic beans produce good luck over the years. Only Mike Vrabel (14-10) has a better record among active coaches.

If not Payton, could it be the refs again with the Saints in the playoffs? It blows my mind that the NFL tried one season of making pass interference reviewable, ditched it, but left nothing in place to prevent the same egregious, game-deciding call happen again at the end of a playoff game like that no-call in the 2018 NFC Championship Game. You don’t want to make PI challengeable? Fine. But at least make it subject to review by the replay system in the final two minutes of the game so we don’t see the same damn mistake again.

Not to make Saints fans more scared, but your defense now leads the league with 19 pass interference penalties this season. Tampa Bay set a record this year by being the beneficiary of 24 DPI flags. Do you see where this is going?

Do you believe my final score is legit or just another reverse jinx? I guess we’ll have to find out Sunday evening. Maybe even sooner, because if the Rams upset the Packers on Saturday, then you know which lucky bastard is going to the Super Bowl again. Bet accordingly.

Final: Buccaneers 28, Saints 24

4 thoughts on “NFL 2020 Divisional Round: Buccaneers at Saints

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