Five things to watch in Bucs-Saints game Saturday
The Bucs have never played on Christmas Day in their 41-year history, and they've only played on Christmas Eve five times -- a win against the Saints this weekend would be just the second such early Christmas gift the team has ever gotten.
After three Dec. 24 losses — to the Steelers in 1989, the Packers in 1994 and at Green Bay in 2000 — the Bucs earned a 27-24 overtime win against the Falcons on Christmas Eve 2005. They got the proverbial lump of coal in 2011, losing 48-16 to Carolina, so their Christmas Eve history hasn't been particularly joyous.
With that holiday history out of the way, here are five things to watch in Saturday's Bucs-Saints game:
1. Can the Bucs win with 7s instead of 3s? The Bucs beat the Saints two weeks ago despite scoring a single touchdown, eking out a 16-11 win with the help of three Roberto Aguayo field goals.
The Bucs had drives stall just outside the red zone -- at the Saints' 23 and 21 -- and converted one of their two red-zone chances, the other stalling at the 7. To beat the Saints in the Sean Payton era (since 2006) isn't easy -- entering this year, his Saints were 31-3 when holding opponents to one touchdown or less; this year, they're 0-2, with the Bucs' loss and a 16-13 loss to the Giants in Week 2.
The Bucs are just 22nd in the NFL in red-zone offense, getting touchdowns only 52.1 percent of the time, down slightly from last year. Jameis Winston completes only 47 percent of his passes in the red zone -- his top receiver isn't Mike Evans (eight catches) but actually tight end Cameron Brate (nine).
All seven of Brate's touchdowns have come in the red zone -- the only player in the NFL with more red-zone touchdown catches is Green Bay's Jordy Nelson. What's more, four of Brate's touchdown catches have come in the red zone and in the fourth quarter -- he leads the NFL outright in those.
2. Can the Bucs do their best Falcons impersonation? If there's a model for beating the Saints in New Orleans, it's what Atlanta did in Week 3, rushing for 217 yards in a 45-32 win in the Superdome. The Falcons scored touchdowns on five straight possessions for a 35-17 lead, then held off the Saints offense.
Thing is, nobody has rushed for even 120 yards on the Saints since. They're vulnerable by the air -- 31st in pass defense, allowing 271.2 yards -- but the Bucs pride themselves on being a run-first offense.
New Orleans has allowed only 19 run plays of 12 yards or more -- what Dirk Koetter calls an "explosive" play -- which is the second-lowest total in the NFL. The Bucs have run for just 20 this year -- Jacquizz Rodgers has eight, Doug Martin just five, Jameis Winston three. But in last year's Bucs win in New Orleans, the Bucs rushed for 139 yards, getting a 20-yard Martin run on their first drive. If they can pull off a dominating run game, their defense won't have to do so much to win this time.
3. Can Jameis Winston set any passing records? If Winston can throw for three touchdown passes, he'll have 28 for the season, breaking Josh Freeman's team record of 27 set in 2012. And while it's more likely to happen next week, Winston can reset his own career high by passing for 432 yards, and can set the Bucs' single-season record by passing for 455, breaking Freeman's 2012 mark of 4,065.
If Winston throws three touchdowns against the Saints, he'll become just the sixth QB to throw for 50 touchdowns in his first two NFL seasons, joining Dan Marino (68), Derek Carr (53), Peyton Manning (52), Russell Wilson (52) and Carson Palmer (50).
It would take two solid games, but Winston could finish this year with the most passing yards ever in a player's first two seasons. He's at 7,653 right now, and would need 544 in two games to top the 8,196 yards that Andrew Luck had in his first two years -- only Cam Newton (7,920) and Manning (7,874) are ahead of him now.
Just with 389 yards in two games, Winston would become the only QB to throw for 4,000-plus yards in each of his first two NFL seasons. Luck and Newton both did so as rookies, but fell short in their second seasons.
4. Can the Bucs match the team record for road wins in a season? A win at New Orleans would be the Bucs' sixth road win of 2016 -- that's as many road wins as the Bucs totaled from 2013-15, which is going 6-2 after going 6-18.
The Bucs had six road wins in their Super Bowl season in 2002, and again in 2010 when they just missed the playoffs with a 10-6 record.
The only NFL teams with better road records than the Bucs right now? The Patriots are 7-0 and the Raiders and Cowboys are 6-1, but the Falcons and Chiefs at 5-2 are the only other teams with a shot at six road wins.
If the Bucs can win their next two, they'd also sweep the Saints and Panthers in the same year for the first time. In 14 previous seasons in the NFC South, they've swept the Saints twice (2005, 2007) and the Panthers three times (2002, 2010, 2012) but never in the same season.
To go 5-1 in division would match the Bucs' best mark since current divisional alignment started in 2002 -- they went 5-1 in 2005 and 2007 as well.
5. Can Daryl Smith pick off Drew Brees? It's an obscure shot to call, but he's done it before, and he had one earlier this season in the Bucs' win against Carolina. Smith, 34, is old enough to have faced Brees in his Chargers days, losing to San Diego as a Jaguars rookie in 2004.
Smith has brought a veteran leadership to the Bucs linebackers but has had a quiet year, with just 28 tackles in a limited role as the strongside linebacker when the Bucs are frequently in their nickel defense. But if he could pull it off, it's a rare thing for a linebacker his age to get an interception -- in the last five years, only James Harrison, London Fletcher, Julius Peppers and Paris Lenon have had interceptions at his age or older.