The (5-2) New Orleans Saints, who are coming off of their 5th straight victory yesterday with a win over the Chicago Bears, have opened as an early 7-point favorite for next Sunday's game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against their NFC South Division rivals, the (2-5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That might seem just slightly high for an NFC South Divisional game, which 9 times out of 10 are contests that are hard fought no matter where the game is played at; but it speaks to the polar opposite directions that the two teams are headed at the moment.
While the Saints haven't lost a game since Week #2, the Buccaneers' proverbial pirate ship is suddenly sinking; as Tampa has lost their last 4 games in a row — including their 17-3 loss yesterday at home to Carolina.
So.....what's wrong with the Buccaneers, you ask?
How about a little of everything.
Coming into the 2017 NFL season. the Bucs were a trendy pick by many analysts and observers to actually win the NFC South this season; especially when they added offensive weapons DeSean Jackson (Free Agency) and O.J. Howard (the rookie tight end out of Alabama) in the offseason to put with budding young superstar QB Jameis Winston.
Unfortunately for the Buccaneers. now as the NFL enters officially into its 2nd half of the 2017 schedule the Buccaneers have fallen into the abyss that is the lower-tier of teams (with the 1-6 New York Giants and the 0-8 San Francisco 49ers) of the NFL.
Winston was injured in Week #6 at Arizona when he sprained his AC joint in his throwing shoulder against Arizona; and then re-injured that shoulder the following week against Buffalo; while additionally bruising the deltoid muscle in his throwing arm.
And if that wasn't bad enough, the Buccaneers running game — thought to be a team-strength — has completely grinded to a halt. The tandem of talented RB's Doug Martin and Jacquizz Rodgers have combined for the 29th ranked run offense in the NFL, a far cry below expectations.
Winston's injury issues aside, 2nd year head coach Dirk Koetter's offensive scheme has struggled mightily to take hold during their past 4 losses; and the 3 total points scored against the Panthers on Sunday has many Bucs fans already questioning the team's decision to hire him as the full-time head coach last year, after he previously served as the team's offensive coordinator during the 2015 season under former head coach Lovie Smith (now with the University of Illinois).
It was the slow-starting offense — the Bucs' 3rd straight game without an offensive TD in the 1st half of games — that was the issue.
Winston struggled against the Panthers defense, completing 21 of 38 passes for 210 yards with two interceptions while rushing three times for 13 yards and losing a fumble. He also may have further tweaked the shoulder injury on top of it.
But instead of blaming Winston's injury or the lack of a running game, Koetter yesterday put the blame on himself.
"If they (the fans or the team's players) need to point fingers, tell them to point them at me,” Koetter told reporters in his post-game press conference.
“Anything that is going wrong is a Buccaneers issue, and anything that’s a Buccaneers issue is a Dirk Koetter issue.”
The offensive woes aside, the Buccaneers defense — a staple of the team's success in recent years — has its own set of problems.
The Buccaneers (rather amazingly) are DEAD LAST in the NFL with seven sacks, and they’re the only one f the League's 32 teams left with a sack total in the single digits.
For a team that's led by perennial (5-time) Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, that's a staggering number.
What's even worse is that 7 NFL players currently more sacks than the Bucs’ entire defensive unit. Against Carolina yesterday, the Bucs failed to record a single sack or even a quarterback hit against Panthers QB Cam Newton.
The frustration for the Bucs defense boiled over in the locker room yesterday after the game; and ESPN Buccaneers beat writer Jenna Laine noted that safety T.J. Ward voiced his frustration over a lack of playing time, as did defensive tackle Chris Baker.
McCoy, the team's captain that never gripes publicly, said he wasn't happy with the way he was having to line up.
Laine says that the Bucs' frustration isn't expected to die down anytime soon, though; now that a season in which they were expected to contend for the division has taken a sudden "free fall".
Given all of that information to digest, it isn't hard to figure out WHY the Saints will be heavily favored to win this game in Sunday.
But this will STILL be an NFC South divisional game; and the Saints would be very wise not to overlook this game with the Buccaneers in anticipation of their inter-conference clash with the Buffalo Bills in 2 weeks from now at Buffalo's New Era Field.
That Saints- Bills game could become a nationally televised game on the NFL's flex TV schedule since both teams are "red hot" and playing so well.
One would imagine that Saints head coach Sean Payton will do everything within his power to keep this young Saints team focused on the task at hand, which will be to come away with an important divisional win.
You should expect the Saints ro come out an play aggressively on both sides of the ball; and with Winston likely still nursing that sore shoulder, this should be a game where the Saints defense could pin its ears back, similarly to the game plan that they used in their win against Detroit a few weeks ago.
Here's an interesting stat for Saints fans to remember:
The Buccaneers are 0-3 away from home, and Winston has four of his six interceptions this year, in those road games.
In short, it's another winnable game for the Saints; but one that they can't afford to take for granted.
This is still an NFC South game — and they'd be wise not to look past the suddenly-sinking Buccaneers.........