Playoff-bound New Orleans can clinch its first NFC South championship in six years by beating the last-place Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a prospect few envisioned when the Saints opened the season with consecutive losses.
“A lot of people just wanted to talk about the 0-2 start, and the fact we were coming off a couple of seasons when we had had slow starts,” quarterback Drew Brees said, reflecting on losses to Minnesota and New England to begin the season.
“Those are very good football teams,” Brees added. “And despite losing those games, I think we felt like we were much closer than people were giving us credit for. … No one had the mentality of: ‘Oh, here we go again.’ … We stuck with the process and believed in each other. We just needed a little bit of validation.”
The Saints (11-4) turned the season around during an eight-game winning streak and are on the brink of winning their first division title since 2011, in part because of the immediate impact of rookies Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore.
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The Bucs (4-11) enter Sunday’s regular-season finale at the bottom of the NFC South after beginning the season with expectations of finally ending a decade-long playoff drought.
Some things to watch when the Saints face the Bucs:
KOETTER'S FUTURE: Tampa Bay’s second five-game losing streak of the season has fueled speculation about coach Dirk Koetter’s job.
The Bucs went 9-7 last season, heightening expectations for their second season under Koetter. The coach said he has not spoken with management about the subject, but concedes rumors about his future, including speculation about a possible rift between him and quarterback Jameis Winston, have been a distraction.
“Of course,” Koetter said. “But we all, coaches and players, get paid to do a job. You try to do it to the best of your ability. That is all you can do.”
HOMECOMING: Saints defensive tackle George Johnson began his NFL career in Tampa Bay, played there five seasons and still makes his family’s permanent home there.
In fact, after being released by Detroit earlier this season, Johnson was living in Tampa again “playing with the kids, hoping that I get another call.”
New Orleans sought a defensive end to fill in while rookie Trey Hendrickson was hurt and offensive-minded Saints coach Sean Payton was familiar with Johnson, given the defensive lineman’s history in the NFC South.
Johnson appears to have been a solid fit. He has 2 1 / 2 sacks in just two games for New Orleans.
While Johnson will be in his city of residence this weekend, he said his wife has already advised him not to become preoccupied with seeing family this time and focus on football.
“She knows I’ve been playing in this league for eight years and never won a division title, so she wants it as bad as I do,” he said.
AWKWARD REUNION: This game marks the first time Saints Pro Bowl rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore and Bucs star receiver Mike Evans will match up since Evans leveled Lattimore with a blindside hit after the whistle.
Evans was assessed a personal foul and later fined for the shot on Lattimore, after which a scuffle on the sideline ensued and Payton could be seen yelling from across the field at the Tampa Bay sideline.
Ask about facing Evans again, Lattimore said, “I’m not about to answer 100 questions about him, but yeah, I’m looking forward to it.”
Lattimore has five interceptions this season to go with 17 passes defended, a forced fumble and fumble recovery.
ON TARGET: Unless Brees has one of his worst games this season against the last-ranked Bucs pass defense, the Saints QB is likely to set a single-season NFL record for completion percentage. Brees enters the game completing 71.9 percent of his passes this season.
The current record of 71.7 was set by Minnesota’s Sam Bradford last season. Brees has averaged about 34 passing attempts per game this season.
If he has that many on Sunday and completes at least 19 (56 percent), he’d have the record again. He also had it from 2009, when he completed 71.6 of his passes, until last season.
BACKFIELD BONANZA: Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara are among the most productive running back tandems in history.
Each has scored 12 TDs and each is on pace to eclipse 1,500 yards from scrimmage this season. Ingram has 1,486, with 1,089 yards and all of his TDs coming on rushes. Kamara has 1,426 yards from scrimmage. He’s scored seven of his TDs rushing, but has most of his yards receiving (742).
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.
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