This week it counts. All of the preps are over, training camp is a distant site in the rearview mirror, the 53-man roster is set and the regular season begins this week for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in New Orleans.
The quickest route to the NFL Playoffs is to win your division and Tampa can take a step toward that against an NFC South foe Sunday at 1 p.m. EST.
The Saints captured the division last season and came one miracle touchdown pass by Minnesota away from making an appearance in the NFC Championship Game. The Bucs will get a look at plenty of familiar faces on Sunday, as quarterback Drew Brees returns for his 18th season and 13th with the Saints.
Despite the familiar opponent, Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter said there is always an unknown element about a team early in the season.
“It’s just the unknown,” Koetter said earlier this week. “Most teams use between a three to five game breakdown, so until you get to three to five games in the year, you don’t know what a team is like.”
The Bucs and Saints split their two meetings last year with both teams winning at home. That was the third-straight season the teams split wins with each other.
About the Saints
The Saints put one of their most versatile teams on the field last year, perhaps its most versatile squad since winning the Super Bowl in 2006.
New Orleans ranked second overall in the league last year in total offense and was much improved on the defensive side of the ball, ranking in the top 10 in the league in points allowed and sacks. That defensive unit made significant strides thanks to the addition of rookie defensive backs Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams.
Lattimore was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2017. He wasn’t the only Saints rookie to garner league-wide honors, however, as running back Alvin Kamara was named the league’s offensive rookie of the year. Kamara is a duel-threat out of the backfield, finding the end zone 13 times in ‘17. Five of those scores came through the air, which tied him for the team lead in that category.
Kamara may have grabbed his fair share of headlines last year, but the Saints are still Brees’ team. Just ask his counterpart and leader of the Buc’s offense.
“I have a ton of respect for him in is his consistency every year,” Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said of Brees. “Week-in and week-out, year-in, year-out, his ability to perform at a high level consistently is not easy to do.”
About the Buccaneers
Tampa’s offense torched New Orleans for 455 yards last season in a win at Raymond James Stadium on Jan. 31. Quarterback Jameis Winston led the offense that day, but he will not be in the building Sunday as her serves the first game of a three-game suspension.
Fitzpatrick saw action in Tampa’s 30-10 loss in New Orleans last year, completing 8-of-15 passes for 63 yards and a touchdown. Fitzpatrick led the Bucs to three wins in 2017 and will be counted on in Winston’s absence to help the Bucs navigate through a tough three-game stretch to open the season.
Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneer offense will need more production from star receiver Mike Evans if they hope to come out of the Superdome with a win Sunday. Evans was held to one catch for 13 yards in Tampa’s last trip to New Orleans, while catching five passes for 55 yards in the team’s season-ending victory against the Saints.
Buccaneers offensive coordinator Todd Monken is confident in Evans and expects great things from him this year.
“Mike’s had a great camp – really has,” Monken said. “He’s a number one receiver in this league, so that in itself gives you the comfort – when you need a play, Mike’s going to put himself in a position to make a play not only with his size, but also his ability to make contested catches.”
The Series at a Glance
Overall Regular Season Series: New Orleans leads series, 32-20
Tampa Road Record vs. New Orleans: 11-18
Current Streak: Buccaneers, one win (12/31/17)
Did You Know?
After 26 straight losses, Tampa’s first victory as a franchise came against the Saints at the Superdome in 1977.
How to Watch
Watch locally on FOX with Chris Myers calling the play-by-play and Daryl Johnston providing color analysis.
How to Listen
Local Broadcast: 98ROCK (97.9 FM)
Satellite Radio: Sirius/XM Channel 230
Home Opener vs. Philadelphia (Raymond James Stadium), Sunday, Sept. 16, 1 p.m.
Content and Photos provided by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (feature photo of players heading to New Orleans) and Sport Writer Shawn Lafata for Destination Tampa Bay
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