This Sunday sees a crucial, top-of-the-pile NFC South showdown between division leaders the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2) and the New Orleans Saints (5-2).
The injury-hit Saints eked out an overtime win against the Chicago Bears courtesy of a Will Lutz field goal last time out, and coach Sean Payton will be all too aware that another win in Florida against the Buccaneers would catapult his side back to its familiar position of being top of the NFC South.
Looking to keep form following a tough win against the New York Giants last week, Tom Brady and the Buccaneers will have other ideas.
Viewers who tuned in to the first encounter between these two in Week 1 can expect to see a completely different performance from Bruce Arians' team.
Back in Week 1, the New Orleans Saints easily disposed of an incohesive and underprepared Tampa offense, 34-23, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But now in Week 9, things have changed.
Tampa and Brady are flying. The options at wide receiver are as good as any in the league, what with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski (What is this, Madden 15?) all vying for targets, and you can bet the much-improved Buccaneers will be hungry for revenge back on home soil.
NFL Week 9: What role will Antonio Brown play against the New Orleans Saints?
Antonio Brown is expected to play some part against the New Orleans Saints. The former Steelers' superstar had been a free agent following failed stints with the Raiders and then the Patriots last season. He's served his NFL suspension and is healthy, but many developed concerns about his character and emotional stability after his last three stops haven't worked out.
Having Brown available will help especially is Chris Godwin can't play. The Bucs' No. 2 receiver (for now) missed last week's game against the Giants following finger surgery. He has been a limited participant in practice this week and is questionable for Sunday's contest against the Saints. Tom Brady's new Julian Edelman -- receiver Scotty Miller -- is also listed as questionable with hip and groin injuries.
The New Orleans Saints could be playing Sunday's game without their No. 1 receiver and maybe their best overall player.
Michael Thomas (hamstring) is listed as questionable. He hasn't played since Week 1. Last season, Thomas set an NFL record with 149 receptions and was voted the league's Offensive Player of the Year.
Without Thomas, the New Orleans Saints have struggled even when they win. Against the Chargers, Panthers and Bears, the offense didn't flow as smoothly as it would with Thomas on the field. The Saints need a reliable outlet for a game of this magnitude, and No. 13 provides that.
New Orleans' second-best receiver, Emmanuel Sanders, has been reactivated from IR following his bout of COVID-19 and is expected to return against Tampa Bay.
The New Orleans Saints rank third in the NFL when it comes to stopping the run, conceding a measly 90.6-yards per game to opposing backs. Up against the likes of Cameron Jordan and Demario Davis, Tampa duo Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II will need to bring their A-games if they plan to make the ground game a positive factor in this one for the Bucs.
That's not to say it's any easier for the New Orleans Saints. The Buccaneers rank second on that same list, conceding just 70.4 yards per game on the ground. Linebackers, Devin White, Shaq Barrett, and Lavonte David constantly masquerade across the line of scrimmage and can put the quarterback and the rush under a lot of pressure, leading to turnovers.
NFL Week 9: Can New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees pull off the upset?
Drew Brees has done an excellent job of managing the New Orleans Saints' offense this season. The Super-Bowl-winning veteran got off to a slow start, but despite injuries to wideouts, Sanders and Thomas he's been economical and accurate and now leads the NFL with a 73.1 completion percentage.
Brady, on the other hand, has been more explosive than many expected; making full use of his talented receiving corps to chalk up 20 touchdowns at this midway point of the campaign.
I think that this is where the difference is: The New Orleans Saints pass defense ranks a lowly 28th in the NFL, and has been giving up big plays on crucial downs all season.
Even without Thomas, the New Orleans Saints can muster enough firepower to go score-for-score with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It'll be close, but I think the Buccaneers take it, 31-28.Published 06 Nov 2020, 15:03 IST