Nine weeks have passed since the New Orleans Saints went on the road to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The game was being built up as the coming-out party for Tom Brady and his cast of weapons on a primetime stage. Antonio Brown had signed with Tampa as a late-season addition.
However, the script for that story was never written as the Saints steamroll the Bucs 38-3. The Saints would win the NFC South title for the fourth consecutive season, while the Buccaneers would qualify for a wild card playoff spot.
Despite their Week 9 matchup, both teams changed to a certain extent. Those changes have allowed both teams to be where they are at right now. The Saints and Buccaneers meet again for the third time this season. They will face each other in the NFC divisional playoff round. Listed below is a breakdown of how both teams have changed as the 2020 season went by.
When the Saints defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they were in the middle of a four-game winning streak. They would extend the streak to another five games. Their defense played a large part in the turnaround. The secondary was no longer causing mental errors, and the defensive line got after the quarterback on a more consistent basis.
The decision to acquire linebacker Kwon Alexander from the 49ers paid huge dividends for the defense. Alexander was able to be successful in coverage situations affecting the Saints’ defense earlier in the season.
With Alexander’s presence, the Saints’ rose to number two in total defense. That’s the highest the team has been ranked in total defense under Sean Payton. Unfortunately, Alexander would be lost for the remainder of the season when he suffered a torn ACL injury versus the Minnesota Vikings. Despite the loss, the Saints defense is still one of the best units left in the postseason.
One of the biggest reasons why Tom Brady decided to leave the New England Patriots was its inability to surround him with reliable weapons on offense. When he signed with Tampa, that was clearly not the case. The Bucs surrounded Brady with multiple passing game options, such as Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, and Cameron Brate. They would later add star wideout Antonio Brown to the fold a week before New Orleans’s rematch.
Unlike the NBA, it is scarce that one player goes from one conference and changes the conference’s entire trajectory of the one that he is about to join. The Bucs front office may have surrounded Brady with an elite supporting cast, but it would take time for all of the pieces to function together.
The Week 1 matchup versus New Orleans showed everyone that the team was still getting acquainted despite the effort put forth. Tampa Bay would have their flashes of greatness leading up to the rematch with New Orleans.
But when the actual game took place, Tampa Bay continued to perform like a team that seemed not interested in playing the Saints again. Tampa would lose two more games before eventually doing just enough to qualify for the postseason. Antonio Brown’s presence with the offense finally took hold in the matchup versus the Atlanta Falcons. Brown was able to get his first touchdown reception with the Buccaneers.
Brady would connect with Brown on three different occasions as he finished the season with 483 yards and four touchdown scores. Tampa Bay finished second in the league in total offense. With a trip to the NFC Championship Game on the line, Tampa Bay faces New Orleans for the third time. When this game is over, we will truly find out if Tampa was assembled to contend with the NFC’s elite franchises.
Photo courtesy of Jason Behnken/Associated Press.