Sunday afternoon promises to be wet and wild in Tampa, Florida, perhaps putting the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints and QB Drew Brees on treacherous footing as they try to nail down their second straight division championship.
Their scheduled opponent is the Tampa Buccaneers (noon, FOX) but the elements could become an unwitting foe as forecasters call for showers, a possible thunderstorm and 12-15 mph winds with gusts upwards of 23 mph at Raymond James Stadium.
“It doesn’t look like it’s gonna rain — it’s gonna rain,’‘ said Saints coach Sean Payton, who put his team through its paces outside this week, including wet ball drills, in anticipation of inclement weather.
The Saints’ hope to bounce back from a shocking 13-10 loss at Dallas on Nov. 29 that snapped a 10-game winning streak and put them a game back of the Los Angeles Rams in the race for NFC homefield advantage.
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A win over the Buccaneers (5-7) would help the Saints (10-2) keep pressure on the Rams (11-1) who visit the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears (8-4) on Sunday night at Soldier Field.
Winning the division has not been a matter of if, but when for New Orleans, which holds a commanding four-game lead over the second-place Carolina Panthers (6-6). The Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons have been inconsequential since Halloween.
The Panthers and Saints meet twice in the final three weeks of the regular season, the first game coming Dec. 17 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, with the regular-season finale at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Dec. 30.
“I think the most important thing is this game in front of us, and finding a way to get to 11 wins, period,’‘ Payton said. “Let’s get to 11. And the (players) are all smart enough to know that they’re chasing other things that can enhance possible opportunities down the road.
“And so it’s that simple. So the focus is really getting to 11 this week, and how do we do that?’‘
The Saints will be out to avenge a 48-40 loss to the Buccaneers in Week 1 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, a stunning start to a regular season filled with lofty goals and high expectations for the Black and Gold.
With veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick filling in for suspended starter Jameis Winston, the Buccaneers amassed 529 yards and totally embarrassed a not-ready-for-primetime defense under Saints coordinator Dennis Allen.
Fitzpatrick accounted for five touchdowns and posted a near-perfect 156.2 passer rating after completing 21 of 28 passes for 417 yards with four TDs and zero INTs.
Buccaneers’ WR Mike Evans was an absolute beast, catching all seven targeted passes from “Fitz-magic’‘ for 147 yards and one TD. Four of those catches resulted in 115 yards and a 50-yard TD and came against Saints Defensive Rookie of the Year CB Marshon Lattimore.
“I lost the first week,’‘ Lattimore conceded, “so, of course, I want to win this week. That’s against anybody, though, not just him.’‘
Winston has returned under center for the Buccaneers, who have temporarily stopped the bleeding with back-to-back wins against San Francisco and Carolina at home the past two weeks. It may take more of the same for embattled Bucs coach Dirk Koetter to save his job, beginning with Sunday’s game against the Saints.
It remains to be seen if Mother Nature lends a helping hand.