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The Race to 10 Comes to An End

The Buccaneers are second only to the Jaguars, in my opinion, as the team with hardest road to get to the playoffs tomorrow.

Working in Tampa’s’ favor are injuries to Pierre Thomas and Marques Colston (their two best offensive players), the chance to silence the remaining doubters about beating good teams, the ability to get 10 wins for the first time since 2005, and the likelihood that Atlanta will beat Carolina and assure New Orleans has nothing to play for.

Working against Tampa are some of their own injuries, the Bears laying down, needing the Redskins to beat the Giatns and going up against a team that is built for indoors. Additionally, they are facing what I consider to be the second best coach in the NFL in Sean Payton. Now, I’d like to take this moment to tell you that I think Mike McCarthy is close behind and actually seems to have a more likable personality than Payton. If not for these two coaches, the NFL would have no head coach close to Belichick.

Mike McCarthy and Sean Payton took over their respective teams in 2006. Pushing all the “city underwater” stuff aside, both teams had difficulty winning consistently. The Packers were the most penalized team in football. The Saints couldn’t move the ball on offense or get turnovers on defense. In McCarthy’s third year, he switched to Aaron Rodgers who has had a 85-to-21 TD-to-INT ratio since taking over (with 13 rushing TDs). Rodgers helped put up 45 points in his only playoff game while turning the ball over 3 times. In Payton’s first year, he brought in Drew Brees, who the Miami Dolphins thought might have shoulder concerns. Payton and Brees have teamed to not only give the team the best run of winning they’ve had in franchise history, but also to bring the city a Super Bowl win. They are 54-34 under Payton including playoffs. He’s also brought the Saints to their only two Championship Game appearances.

Payton coaches the way I would coach with his personnel: aggressively. They incorporate a lot of personnel shifts, formations, tempo changes, and occasional fakes. You could see on Monday night that they were willing to throw late rather than do the conservative “run, run, run, punt” and let the Falcons get another shot. When Payton faces a defense you’re calling, he knows that you know that he likes to pass. When he has Reggie Bush out there, you know he’s probably going to pass. He doesn’t care.

It’s on to the game.

When Tampa is throwing: I’ve picked against Tampa Bay a lot this year but my consolation to those who call me a doubter is that I have often picked Greg Olson to call a great game and Josh Freeman to attack the safeties. I have been wrong on both accounts much of the season. Josh Freeman has to be feeling extra aggressive this week, regardless of whether Green Bay eliminates them on the scoreboard or not. In regards to the confidence of a quarterback, Freeman’s now been to the mountaintop. He threw for 5 TDs last week and he’s going to strive hard for that again. In today’s NFL, the passing game is your path to victory and – regardless of the team records and personal achievements (10 wins, 25 passing TDs in a season) that may be in reach – it’s crucial that the most crucial unit retain momentum into the off-season. The Saints are going to score points and Olson, who doesn’t have a contract in place for next year, is going to want to go out with a great, unsafe game since his conservatism in the past has bit him. Freeman can avoid the rushers who will be sent heavily (and maybe experimentally for the playoffs) and the small New Orleans corners are going to have problems against Mike Williams and Kellen Winslow. Edge: Tampa Bay, strongly.

When Tampa is running: The Saints run defense has been up and down all year. They are 17th with a 4.3 ypc average allowed and have given up 13 TDs. They’ve notched 5 games of under 100 yards allowed including just 42 allowed in the first meeting. They haven’t faced LeGarrette Blount. Blount has had – in just ten games of 10+ carries – an average of 4.5 ypc or higher 7 times. Chris Johnson has only reached that 6 times in 15 games . People aren’t joking when they call them the Tampa Bay Triplets. Edge: Tampa Bay.

When New Orleans is throwing: I know I counted Marques Colston as one of their best weapons but the Saints have done a stellar job of stacking this team. I think Brees will go to Adrian Arrington early to get him comfortable, but it will mostly be strikes to Moore and the tight ends. Then again, in the first game Brees went deep early. Whatever the case, this secondary has too many injuries to be up for this challenge. I think the pass rush of the Bucs will be the key. While they don’t have the personnel Baltimore and Atlanta have, it’s been clear for most of Payton’s stay in New Orleans that he isn’t afraid to turn the ball over. The best way to get takeaways is to get your defensive linemen and linebackers flying like anime (Japanimation) characters at Brees from behind. Edge: New Orleans.

When New Orleans is running: During the last five weeks, the Bucs’ run defense has outplayed the Bears. Whether that’s a compliment to the Bucs or a statement of panic for the Bears is your call.  Over the last six weeks, the Buccaneers have allowed 100+ yards just twice (188 to the Redskins, 181 to the Lions but kept both teams to a combined 1 rushing TD). With a banged up Saints backfield, I think the Bucs’ D-linemen brotherhood fighting for future jobs will summon their strength and get it done with occasional big rushes allowed. Edge: even.

PREDICTION: The Bucs will, indeed, complete the race to 10. Raheem Morris has put together a team that has been competitive every week since they last played the Saints in the fifth game of the year, with the possible exception of the Ravens game, where it really should have been a 2-score lead at the end and Freeman struggled. The Saints look to go into the playoffs in sync and in routine but you wonder (Payton says the scores won’t effect their plan “one bit”) – with the injuries they have already – if you won’t see a few starters pulled in the early 4th. Whatever the case, I think the Bucs will do what they did last year and go into the Superdome and steal a win. The only difference is, they aren’t so far off. Late in the game, Blount will be the difference as he goes up against weary defenders. Buccaneers 34, Saints 31.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. michael

    January 1, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    Olson and Mangurian are under contract for 2011 according to Stroud.

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