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 NFL team has a more dramatic difference in where they play than the Saints, who average a league-high 15.1 more points at home than on the road. They allow seven fewer points in home games as well, meaning they're three touchdowns better just by 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 Tuesday. "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 undefeated at home, but they're 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. Better teams, ones still alive for playoff berths, have struggled this year 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, teams score about three points per game more at home — the Bucs are slightly better, a 4.4-point difference. So why do the Saints thrive at home? You can point to a controlled climate indoors, 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 lost their past three road games, they still need 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. start to a 4:25 kickoff, bringing a bigger audience and a postseason feel.
"Probably a more raucous (crowd) at 3:25 (Central time)," 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."
A big part of the Saints' success in the September win was tight end Jimmy Graham, who had a season-high 179 yards on 10 catches, which matched a season high. He also caught a 56-yard touchdown, the longest of his 81 receptions this season — in 13 games since, the Bucs have allowed only one play longer.
"He's a big-time player who makes a lot of plays. You have to try to be physical with him," said Bucs linebacker Mason Foster, who had an 85-yard interception return for touchdown in that first meeting. "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."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected]m or (813) 226-3346. Follow him on Twitter at @GregAuman.