Third time a charm? Bucs at New Orleans for NFC division playoff game

Tampa Bay was swept by the Saints during the regular season.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, left, talks with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees at midfield following Tampa Bay's loss in November at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, left, talks with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees at midfield following Tampa Bay's loss in November at Raymond James Stadium. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 11, 2021|Updated Jan. 11, 2021

TAMPA ― The Bucs’ season began with a loss at New Orleans. They have a chance to make sure it doesn’t end that way, too.

The Saints beat the Bears 21-9 Sunday in an NFC wild-card game at the Superdome, so the Bucs will travel to New Orleans for a division-round playoff game this Sunday.

It’s Tom Brady versus Drew Brees in the three-quel. It also will be the first time two quarterbacks in their 40s (Brady is 43, Brees turns 42 on Friday) will meet in the postseason.

“Don’t take it for granted,’' Brees said of the matchup with Brady. “I’m very appreciative of the opportunity. Listen, the minute that he signed with the Bucs and came to the division, you felt like that was going to be a team to contend with. That was going to be a team that had playoff aspirations and beyond, just like us. So, I guess it was inevitable.’'

The Saints have beaten the Bucs in five consecutive games, four by double digits, including both matchups this season.

Tampa Bay lost this year’s opener at New Orleans 34-23 in Brady’s debut with the Bucs. Without the benefit of preseason games, Brady had one of his worst days, passing for 239 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, including one that was returned for an interception. He also ran for a score.

The Sunday Night Football rematch at Raymond James Stadium on Nov. 8 was even worse. The Bucs trailed 31-0 and lost 38-3. Brady had his worst game of the season, passing for 209 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions.

It was also the first game as a Buc for receiver Antonio Brown, who had three catches for 31 yards.

After the Bucs’ 31-23 win at Washington in a wild-card game Saturday night, coach Bruce Arians said he didn’t care who they played in the next round.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’re playing, that’s all that matters. We’re a better football team than the last time we played the Saints ― if we go there. It doesn’t matter to me.”

Had the Bears beaten the Saints, the Bucs would have hosted the Rams at Raymond James Stadium. The Rams instead play Saturday at top-seeded Green Bay.

Brady posted a video on social media Sunday, as he does after every game, asking fans the rhetorical question: Which team do you want the Bucs to play?

“It was a great 60 minutes of football,” Brady said of his team’s win at Washington. “Our first playoff win yesterday. It’s the middle of January and we’re still working. We’re still here. Round two next. Who do you guys want us to play? I think I know.”

Tampa Bay had lost to the Rams earlier this season, too. Quarterback Jared Goff passed for 376 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions in a 27-24 win over the Bucs on Nov. 23.

But Goff, who attempted 51 passes in that game, hasn’t played as well of late and was forced into Saturday’s wild-card game at Seattle with a broken right thumb after backup John Wolford suffered a neck injury in the first quarter. The Rams upset the Seahawks 30-20.

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Arians’ suggestion that the Bucs are a much better team now than the two times they played the Saints earlier this season has some merit.

Brady is enjoying the best five-game stretch of his career. He has completed 116 of 176 passes for 1,714 yards with 14 touchdowns and one interception (a deflected pass off receiver Scotty Miller).

The Bucs’ offensive line has struggled in pass protection against the Saints, allowing six sacks in two games.

The line suffered a major loss against Washington when right guard Alex Cappa suffered what Arians said appears to be a broken right ankle.

The Bucs don’t have many options to replace him. They promoted veteran Ted Larsen from the practice squad, and he replaced Cappa on Saturday. They also have Aaron Stinnie, who was inactive against Washington, or they could move tackle Joe Haeg inside to guard.

Defensively, the Bucs will get a big lift with the return of linebacker Devin White, who is expected to return from the reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday, once the Bucs make room for him on the active roster.

Arians wasn’t happy with his team’s defensive performance Saturday. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke, making only the second start of his career, passed for 306 yards with one touchdown and one interception while rushing six times for 46 yards and a score.

A repeat of that effort won’t be good enough to beat the Saints.

“No, this performance defensively, it wouldn’t be,” Arians said. “Offensively, it would be. We’ll show up and see. I think some of our guys — I don’t think veterans did, but some of our younger guys — might have relaxed when (quarterback) Alex Smith wasn’t playing. I kind of kept preaching at them, ‘This kid (Heinicke) can run, he can do a lot of things.’ He almost beat us with his legs. I’m never going to apologize for winning, and next week’s next week.”

For the Saints, the prospect of beating the same team three times in one seasons isn’t an easy proposition. Only twice have the Bucs played the same team three times in the same season, and both came in the 1997 season. Playing in the old NFC North, the Bucs split the regular-season series with Detroit before beating them in the playoffs. They were swept by Green Bay, including a loss in a division-round game.

Up next

NFC Division Round

No.5 seed Bucs (12-5) at No. 2 Saints (13-4), 6:40 Sunday, New Orleans TV/radio: Fox; 97.9-FM Line/OU: Saints by 3; 51½