Brian Allee-Walsh

Stage set for New Orleans Saints to ring in New Year's in championship style

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) works against the Atlanta Falcons.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) works against the Atlanta Falcons. Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS The playoff-bound New Orleans Saints better pack warm weather gear for Sunday's regular-season finale at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

The New Year's Eve forecast on the Left Coast calls for sunny skies, high of 69 and no chance of rain, with the game starting in sunlight and ending under moonlight due to a flexed 3:25 p.m. kickoff.

Even Mother Nature appears to be smiling down on the serendipitous Saints, who with a victory against Tampa Bay would win their first NFC South championship since 2011.

If the Saints (11-4) do prevail, as expected, they would ensure themselves of hosting a wildcard game next weekend, possibly against Carolina, Atlanta or Seattle, depending on how the final week of the regular season plays out.

The Bucs may have resolved one of their biggest issues before entering the offseason. Several news outlets reported Friday that the Glazer family will retain coach Dirk Koetter (13-18 with one game remaining in his second season) and give him another year to prove himself.

Speculation has persisted the past few weeks that Koetter would be dismissed at season's end and possibly replaced by current MNF analyst Jon Gruden, who coached the Bucs from 2002-'08 and won Super Bowl XXXVII in his first season with Tampa Bay.

Whether the decision to keep Koetter lights a fire under the embattled Bucs -- losers in five straight games and 10 of their last 12 -- is anyone's guess. Regardless, it appears Koetter no longer is coaching for his job.

In the meantime, the Saints have a job to do on the last day of 2017, a year that got off to a horrific start Jan. 1 with a 38-32 loss against the NFC South-champion Atlanta Falcons at the now demolished Georgia Dome to end the 2016 regular season.

How times have changed for the Saints, who some national pundits suggest have what it takes to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4 at U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.

If Week 17 plays out as I suspect it will, the Saints could be playing the NFC North-champion Minnesota Vikings at the aforementioned stadium in a divisional round game the weekend of Jan. 13-14.

Only one of six seeds in the NFC has been locked up and I believe the Carson Wentz-less Philadelphia Eagles are fool's gold with backup quarterback Nick Foles under center.

Truth be told, I wouldn't rule out the possibility of then-39-year-old quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints hosting the NFC Championship game Jan. 21 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome

It could happen. Anything seems possible with this well-rounded team.

After all, Saints rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore made an extraordinary interception with the help of his gluteus maximus -- a cheeky way of doing things wouldn't you agree? -- in their Week 16 home win against the Falcons.

And now the Black and Gold will usher out the old and ring in the new on what promises to be a balmy New Year's Eve in Tampa.

Put the champagne on ice!

Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.

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