Top storyline: Saints focus on Bucs, not scoreboard
By the time the New Orleans Saints take the field for Sunday’s regular-season finale with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, they’ll know if they’re playing to get into the playoffs — or playing for a whole lot more.
Of course, they know if they win against the 4-11 Bucs, they’re in.
What they don’t know at this moment is if they’ll be playing for the NFC South title, the conference’s two seed and a coveted bye and a home game in the divisional round in two weeks.
That’s a lot to play for, but they’ll only have that chance if the Carolina Panthers were to fall to the Atlanta Falcons earlier in the Georgia Dome.
But all week long, the Saints said that what happens between the Panthers and Falcons will be no concern of theirs as they go about their final pregame preps and on-field warm-ups before the matchup with the Bucs.
Because they relinquished control of their postseason fate with regards to the No. 2 seed with a gun-wrenching 17-13 loss to the Panthers last Sunday, the Saints know they have to concentrate on one thing — and one thing only: the Bucs.
If they beat the Bucs, who had them on the ropes in Week 2 before the Saints prevailed on a field goal on the game’s final play, they clinch at least a wild-card berth.
Then again, if the Panthers lose to the Falcons, there will be a lot more at stake after failing to earn the No. 2 seed and first-round bye last week.
So, as far as they’re concerned, the mission is the same — regardless of what happens in Atlanta.
Just win and they’re in.
About the Bucs
While the Saints played the Panthers twice in 15 days this month, it’s been awhile since they’ve seen the Bucs — some 105 days ago on Sept. 15 in Raymond James Stadium.
The Bucs team that dropped a 16-14 decision to the Saints that day in a game that featured a 69-minute weather delay is a lot different than the one that the Saints will face Sunday.
Three key starters on offense that day — quarterback Josh Freeman, running back Doug Martin and wide receiver Mike Williams — are gone.
Freeman was released in early October after being ineffective in an 0-3 start, and they went on to lose their next five games before rallying to win four of five under rookie Mike Glennon.
Martin and Williams are on injured reserve, which has added to their woes on that side of the ball where they rank last in total yards, passing yards, yards per play and third-down efficiency.
Their defense kept them in most of their early losses, but the Bucs have allowed nearly 28 points per game in their last three setbacks.
Key matchup: Saints O-line vs. Bucs DT Gerald McCoy
McCoy, the third overall pick of the 2010 draft, has blossomed in his fourth season and has at times become a disruptive force.
McCoy dropped Drew Brees once in the first meeting with the Saints in September and could cause a lot more trouble for an offensive line that gave up six sacks — tying the most since Sean Payton took over in 2006 — in last week’s loss to the Panthers.
The Saints have allowed 36 sacks this season, which means their interior linemen — center Brian de la Puente and Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs — will have to work extra hard in doubling the 295-pound McCoy at times and keep him from adding to his career-high nine sacks.
X factor: Saints OLB Junior Galette
Galette has had a solid season in his first year as a starter with 10 sacks while applying lots of pressure to opposing quarterbacks.
The Saints have recorded 47 sacks, and Galette’s ability to affect the quarterback with his power and speed has been a huge part of their success going into the regular-season finale.
If the fourth-year pro doesn’t get there, he’s been close and has forced quarterbacks to release the ball before their receivers can get open against the league’s second-ranked pass defense.
If the Bucs’ offensive line pays too much attention to Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan, who has 121/2 sacks this season, Galette will have a chance to get to rookie quarterback Mike Glennon.
Glennon has been sacked 38 times in his 12 starts, and the Bucs have allowed 45 sacks in all — the sixth-most in the league.
That would be a big green light for Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to turn up the heat even more this week.
Three and out
1 ANOTHER 5K?: Drew Brees has 4,781 passing yards and needs 219 on Sunday to reach 5,000 yards for the third year in a row and fourth time in six seasons. Only four others have reached 5,000 — Tom Brady, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning and Matthew Stafford — all once.
2 GOING FOR GRONK: Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who’s been selected to his second Pro Bowl, will try to tie or break the record for receiving touchdowns by a tight end in a season. Graham has 15, two shy of the record set by New England’s Rob Gronkowski in 2011.
3 BESTING THE BUCS: The Saints will be going for a fifth straight victory against the Bucs, which would match the franchise’s five-game winning streak against them from 1984-88. Also, the Saints’ 41-0 win last Dec. 16 was the third-largest margin of victory in franchise history.