TAMPA ― They are in their heads and know how to get under their skin. They have won five straight head-to-head battles and most haven’t been close. They are the first team to sweep the NFC South. They are a better football team, and they know it.
They are rolling with all the swagger of a Mardi Gras float.
That’s why the New Orleans Saints have a huge psychological advantage over the Bucs in Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game.
“It’s definitely a great rivalry,” Bucs receiver Mike Evans said. “When we play each other, (there) is a lot of emotion, a lot of physicality. As players, we love it. We love this rivalry. I know the fans love it. I would say it is our biggest rivalry.”
Ah, but to be a true rivalry, the same team cannot always win. At the very least, the games need to be competitive.
The Saints have never lost to Bruce Arians’ Bucs. In fact, this season they defeated them by a combined score of 72-26. That includes the most recent blowout, a 38-3 embarrassment in which the Bucs trailed 31-0.
It’s been billed as Tom Brady versus Drew Brees in the three-quel. Brady has never lost three games to one team in the same season.
But five of Brady’s 12 interceptions this season have come against the Saints, including a pick-six in the season opener. Many were the result of too much pressure and having to abandon the run early. He also was sacked three times in each game.
“It’s mostly been the turnovers,” Arians said. “The turnover margin has been lopsided in their favor. We’ve got to protect the football much better and stay balanced. The (home) game here, we left the running game early. Just stay balanced and not turn the ball over.”
Then again, the Bucs aren’t the same team they were the last time they played the Saints on Nov. 8. Not even close.
Since the bye week, Brady is on one of the hottest five-game tears of his career. He is 116-for-176 passing (66 percent) for 1,714 yards with 14 touchdowns and one interception.
The biggest difference in the Bucs offense is the improvement of receiver Antonio Brown. His first game for the Bucs came against the Saints midway through the year when he was not fully integrated into the offense. In the past five games, Brown has 27 receptions for 364 yards with five touchdowns.
“Well clearly, they’re a better team (now) and I think it’s entirely different when you get into the post-season,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I think when you try to draw a comparison, it’s that it’s not best-of-seven or best-of-five, it’s just one game. I think you can see on film as you follow the games, whether you’re watching the defensive side of the ball, the offensive side of the ball, their kicking game, there’s a reason they’ve won as many games as they have.
“I think they’re doing a real good job in the passing game. They’ve got good balance. I think it’s entirely different. Your divisional play is one thing, and now you get into the actual divisional round of the playoffs. It feels like it’s been eight months since we last played them. Obviously, it hasn’t been. The teams are different.”
The Saints have had their trials, as well. Brees suffered 11 fractured ribs in Weeks 9 and 10 and missed four games. New Orleans still managed to go 3-1 with Taysom Hill starting at quarterback.
Defensively, the Bucs have done a good job corralling Saints running back Alvin Kamara. He rushed for only 16 yards on 12 carries in the season opener and was limited to nine rushes for 40 yards in the rematch at Raymond James Stadium.
But Brees passed for 222 yards and four touchdowns in the Saints’ win in November.
Arians said the Bucs defense played poorly in the wild-card game at Washington, and that effort won’t be good enough to advance to the NFC Championship Game.
“Just maturity,” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “You learn something from every game as it goes along. We’ve got a lot of young guys back there from a maturity lesson and learning standpoint and, hopefully, a patience standpoint. You learn a lot more going forward, and it builds more character. You don’t want it to take getting your butt kicked to build character, but some of these games are important that you build things like that and you learn from them.”
But what have the Bucs really learned?
In their last meeting, they were without starting left guard Ali Marpet, and Joe Haeg played poorly in his place.
In Sunday’s game, starting right guard Alex Cappa is out with a broken ankle, and former James Madison guard Aaron Stinnie will make his first start Sunday.
Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson has three of his 13.5 sacks against the Bucs. Defensive end Cam Jordan likes to talk and has said the Bucs were playing for second place (he was right) in the NFC South.
Talking about the Bucs’ marquee lineup on Friday, Jordan said Brady “blew into his conch” shell, and all-stars started to appear.
Evans and Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore have had such intense one-on-one battles, one dissolved into a post-whistle confrontation, fine and one-game suspension for Evans.
The Saints have other instigators. Bears receiver Anthony Miller was ejected from the wild-card game after being goaded into punching defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson.
“I can’t really speak for how they feel and how they should feel about this (game),” Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “We’re going to accept responsibility for the times we’ve been here and haven’t found a way to win. This is a whole new ballgame Sunday night. ... These guys have been in a lot of these situations together — coaches and players ― so we know what we’re up against.”
What the Bucs are facing is a Saints team that wants to send Brees out as a Super Bowl winner. They have the scoreboard, the self-confidence, the Superdome and tons and tons of swagger.
After beating the Bucs nine weeks ago, Jameis Winston interrupted Brees’ postgame interview to eat a W. The Saints danced and celebrated loudly in the locker room.
“I don’t think there’s any more swag than our offense has, I guarantee that,” Arians said. “You can’t get caught up in the finger-pointing and the trash-talking. You’ve got to play football. The Bears’ young receiver got caught up in it and got thrown out of the game. It’s going to happen. That’s who they are. You just have to deal with it and win your one-on-one matchups. They have a ton of swagger, and they should.”