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Saints-Bucs Turning Point, Week 14: Goodbye, playoffs?

It's not quite time to cue up an Adele playlist, but when you look back on the 2015 Buccaneers season, this might be the game that you remember as the one where your postseason hopes began to slip away.

Sunday's 24-17 loss wasn't a heartbreaker, but it was a letdown. The Saints, losers of four straight games, were trending downward; the Bucs, winners of three of their past four, were trending upward. New Orleans was supposed to be a stepping stone on the path to the playoffs.

But it's the NFL, and there are no iron-clad certainties. Consider the following:

Before Sunday: The Saints allowed 425.2 yards per game. They gave up more than 300 total yards in every game.

Sunday: They held the Bucs to less than 300 total yards.

Before Sunday: The Saints allowed 31.2 points per game.

Sunday: They allowed about half of that.

Before Sunday: In his past four games, Drew Brees threw five interceptions. In his past three games against the Bucs, he threw seven.

Sunday: Brees didn't throw an interception.

Before Sunday: The Bucs went three-and-out on just 13.4 percent of their drives. That's second to only the Cardinals (13.2).

Sunday: The Bucs went three-and-out on their first two drives and on three of nine overall.

Before Sunday: In their past six games, the Bucs allowed opponents to score touchdowns on 41 percent of their red zone visits.

Sunday: The Saints scored touchdowns on each of their first two red zone visits and on three of four overall. Marques Colston caught both of those touchdowns. He hadn't caught two touchdowns in one game in two years and never against the Bucs.

It figures. As Adele sang in Don't You Remember, "the more I do, the less I know."

One truth that this game reaffirmed: The Saints are very, very good on third down. Before Sunday, they converted 44.5 percent of third downs into first downs, the fourth-best rate in the NFL. On Sunday, they converted seven of their first eight and 12 of 17 overall (70.6 percent).

The most significant conversion occurred relatively early in the game. On the second play of the second quarter, Brees, on third-and-21, hit a wide open Willie Snead down the left sideline for a 41-yard gain. It is only the second completion for a first down on third-and-21 or more this season.

How does a receiver get that open? Two reasons: good play design and poor execution on defense.

Let's break it down.

The Saints come to the line in 02 personnel (no running backs, two tight ends, three receivers). The tight ends flank the offensive line and initially stay in to block before running out to the flats in case Brees needs to check it down. The Bucs rush only four, meaning that, for a moment, the Saints have three receivers against seven defenders in pass coverage.

It's a classic Tampa 2 situation (in the Tampa 2 defense, two safeties play deep, four defenders play zone coverage underneath and a linebacker drops deep down the middle to cover the soft spot between the two safeties), and that's exactly what the Bucs call.

The Saints, however, counter with a route combination that stresses the Tampa 2. Snead, who lines up on the far left, runs a fly route down the sideline. Brandon Coleman, the receiver in the slot next to him, also runs a fly. They're trying to force safety Bradley McDougald to make a choice: stay in his deep zone on the left side of the field or abandon it to help cover the route over the middle.

Middle linebacker Bruce Carter does his job and runs with Coleman down the hashmarks. But when McDougald drifts from his post to defend the middle of the field, he gives Brees exactly what he wants. Once Snead passes cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah, there's a good 15 yards between him and McDougald. Brees, arguably the most accurate quarterback in NFL history, isn't going to miss that.

What's missing from the Tampa 2 these days is a pass rush, and if you can find it on this play, there's a $1,000 reward waiting for you.

After the game, coach Lovie Smith said simply, "Good execution on their part, bad on ours."

Four plays later, Brees was celebrating his second touchdown pass of the day and 25th of the season — his 11th season with at least 25 (only Peyton Manning has more). The score put the Saints up 14-0 and dropped the Bucs' win probability from 39.6 percent before the third-and-21 pass to 16.8 percent after the drive. Tampa Bay spent the rest of the afternoon chasing that pivotal touchdown, twice cutting New Orleans' lead to seven but only seven.

If Jameis Winston's improbable scramble on third-and-19 a week ago was the match that sparked your playoff hopes, then Brees-to-Snead blew out the candle.

While that play was the game-changer, the Saints' ability to keep the majority of their third downs manageable and to execute in those situations allowed New Orleans to extend drives, chew up clock and limit Tampa Bay's opportunities.

"I felt like offensively we were in those third-down situations that we talk about, two to three, four to six." Saints coach Sean Payton said. "I think if you just looked at the third-down numbers by themselves, I think you could predict the outcome of the game. We converted a lot, and defensively we got off the field."

Indeed. Eleven of the Saints' 17 third downs were third-and-6 or less, and they converted nine those. The Bucs, however, converted three of eight and just one of five when it was third-and-4-6.

Situation New Orleans Tampa Bay
Third-and-1-3 5/6, 35 yards 2/3, 4 yards
Third-and-4-6 4/5, 27 yards 1/5, -2 yards
Third-and-7-9 0/2, 7 yards 0/0
Third-and-10+ 3/4, 67 yards 1/3, 29 yards
12/17, 136 yards 4/11, 31 yards

"This had to be one of our worst third-down performances we've had in a long time," Winston said. "And that's situational football. That's how you win football games. You look at the way the game turned out, Drew Brees, they converted a lot on their third downs, and we didn't."

Mathematically, the Bucs are still in the hunt, but because of their loss and the Seahawks' win, a lot has to fall their way. It looks as though the Bucs will need to win out, which isn't unfathomable. They face the offensively challenged Rams on Thursday night, then play the Bears at home and visit a Panthers team in Week 17 that might not have anything to play for. Even if circumstances aligned and the Bucs won their final three, they'll also need either the 8-5 Vikings (who play the Bears, Giants and Packers) or the 8-5 Seahawks (who play the Browns, Rams and Cardinals) to lose two of their final three games.

If only the Bucs had beaten the Saints, maybe, just maybe, they could have had it all.

Thomas Bassinger can be reached at Follow @tometrics.

Saints-Bucs Turning Point, Week 14: Goodbye, playoffs? 12/14/15 [Last modified: Monday, December 14, 2015 11:08am]
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