TAMPA — The Saints enter their showdown with the Bucs on Sunday in unfamiliar territory.
For the first time in eight years, New Orleans (5-8) is playing out its final three games with almost no chance for the playoffs. It's coming off a 52-27 loss to the Giants that interim coach Joe Vitt labeled an "embarrassment." That's a far cry from the usual success of the perennial NFC power, which is 37-11 over the past three years.
But it has been no ordinary year in New Orleans, with the Saints engulfed in a bounty scandal that resulted in several suspensions, including head coach Sean Payton for the season, as well as everyday distractions. Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue's ruling Monday vacated the player suspensions and might have offered some closure, though Vitt said they're not making excuses.
"I think that we've lived with this thing for a long (time), over our head," Vitt said. "But inside the walls of this building … when the players come here … there's not a lot of time to talk about the coulda, shoulda, woulda. It's about living in the moment and trying to get better. As far as closure goes, the only thing I can say is I'm happy for our players that they've been vindicated and the suspensions have been vacated. That's a good thing."
While the Saints, powered by QB Drew Brees, boast the NFL's third-ranked offense, their defense is the worst overall (436.6 yards per game). Turnovers have been an Achilles heel, with 11 in their past three games and a minus-4 differential overall.
"At the end of the day, we're not going to get a mulligan for this season," Vitt said. "We have a million excuses of why we're not where we should be right now. But the fact of the matter is, we're not playing good enough to win right now."
NEXT STEP: DE Michael Bennett leads the Bucs with nine sacks, which should net him a sizable payday in the spring when he hits unrestricted free agency for the first time.
Bennett, claimed off waivers in 2009, has blossomed as a starter the past two years. The Bucs handed Bennett the highest tender ($2.7 million) as a restricted free agent this past offseason.
Bennett, 27, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M, is open to returning but will let the situation play itself out.
"I love the Buccaneers," he said. "But it's a business. You've got to do what's best for your family."
WELCOME BACK: When CB Brandon McDonald was released on Nov. 6, the transaction barely made headlines.
In retrospect, the Bucs could have used some veteran play in their secondary as they've been victimized by quarterbacks in their three-game skid. McDonald had played extensively early in the season, at one point holding the nickelback role while E.J. Biggers and Anthony Gaitor rehabbed; he had 20 tackles and an interception in eight games. The Bucs, statistically, have the league's worst secondary.
McDonald was re-signed this week and is more than willing to help out.
"I nicked up my ankle a little bit," he said, referring to his first go-round with the Bucs. "That's just how it is. One guy goes down, another guy has to step up. That guy played well, and that's how the cookie crumbles."
MEDICAL MATTERS: RG Jamon Meredith did not practice due to a lingering ankle injury. … DE Da'Quan Bowers is dealing with a sore hamstring, but his absence Wednesday was not injury-related. … DT Roy Miller, who missed last week's game with a concussion, practiced and expects to play against the Saints. CB LeQuan Lewis (knee) also practiced.
Times staff writer Stephen F. Holder contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.