Bucs face much tougher task with Saints on road
TAMPA -- When the Bucs head to New Orleans for Sunday's season finale, they'll have the confidence of remembering they nearly beat the Saints at Raymond James Stadium in Week 2, falling 16-14 on a last-second field goal.
Then again, Sunday's game is in the Superdome, and no team in the NFL has a more dramatic difference in how they play at home than the Saints, who average a league-high 15.1 more points at home than on the road, allowing seven fewer points in home games as well. They're three full touchdowns better, just on location.
"I don't know why that is. I don't think it's every season, so it's not like that's been their MO," coach Greg Schiano said. "Thirty-three points (per game) at home, 18 on the road. Plus-five in turnover margin at home, minus-five on the road. There's no doubt, they're 7-0 at home because of those numbers. We've got a tall order in front of us."
The Saints are 7-0 at home, but still battling for a spot in the playoffs because they're 3-5 on the road, and the Bucs need to find a way to make New Orleans play like it's traveling for the holidays. That wasn't the case the last time the Bucs and Schiano went there, losing 41-0 last season. Other better teams still alive for playoff berths have struggled in New Orleans -- Dallas lost there by 32, Arizona by 24, Miami by 21 and even NFC South rival Carolina by 18.
Across the league, NFL teams score about 3 points per game more at home -- the Bucs are slightly better than that at 4.4 points more at home. So why do the Saints thrive at home? You can point to a controlled climate, but the Bucs have more control over limiting the home crowd's impact on the game.
"You have to attack them," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "You can't let a team like this get hot early, because if they get hot early, there's no stopping them. It's almost impossible. One of the best crowds in the NFL. That's a tough place to play, playoff-type environment."
And because the Saints have lost their last three home games, they're still needing a win Sunday (or an Arizona loss) to clinch a playoff berth. With that in mind, the NFL flexed the game from its scheduled 1 p.m. ET start to a 4:25 kickoff, with a bigger audience and a postseason feel.
"Probably a more raucous (crowd) at 3:25 than at 1," Schiano said. "(Our) guys are excited about the opportunity. They understand what the atmosphere is going to be down in New Orleans. Playoff-type atmosphere, and that will be good for us, good for our young guys to be in that environment. ... When you're 4-11, you don't usually get pushed back in the day on the TV time. Obviously, it's a game with implications and we're fortunate to be involved in it. Even though it's not our implications, it's our implications. It's our playoff game."
A big part of the Saints' success in the September win was tight end Jimmy Graham, who went for a season-high 179 yards on 10 catches, which matched a season-high. He also caught a 56-yard touchdown pass, the longest of his 81 catches this season -- in 13 games since, the Bucs have allowed only one play longer, careful not to give up the deep ball.
"He's a big-time player who makes a lot of plays. You have to try to be physical with him," said linebacker Mason Foster, who had an 85-yard interception returned for touchdown. "You have to keep him from making those big plays. He's going to make plays, but keep him from making those big, game-changing plays."
Schiano said limiting Graham will be a challenge and priority, but what concerns him is the balance and depth of the Saints' offensive threats. New Orleans has four players with 69 of more receptions; the Bucs have one, making it harder to game-plan as a defense.
"It's a different look. They spread the ball around so well," Schiano said. "Drew (Brees) reads things out so well, pure progression, bang-bang-bang, goes through it very rapidly. He goes where the ball should go. It doesn't matter who it is."