The New Orleans Saints will be seeking their first NFC South Division Championship since 2011 this Sunday, when they travel to Tampa, Florida to face their division rivals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2017 regular season finale for both teams.
The (11-4) Saints can win the NFC South Division with a win vs. (4-11) Tampa Bay, or if Carolina loses their final game at Atlanta.
Additionally, the Saints are now headed back to the NFL Playoffs for the first time since the end of the 2013 season and will play in the Wild-Card round of the NFC on the weekend of Jan. 6th-7th, as either the #3, #4 or #5 seed.
That won't be determined officially until a number of different scenarios have had a chance to play out — ranging from as high as the Saints finishing as NFC South Division champions and hosting the Wild Card game at the Superdome as the #3 seed; and all the way down to them playing on the road at either Los Angeles or Carolina as the #5 seed.
It's with that in mind that this morning, that the Saints News Network presents our 5 "bold predictions" for this Sunday's 2017 regular season finale, for the Playoff bound Saints at Tampa Bay against the Buccaneers..........
#5. SAINTS WIDE RECEIVER MICHAEL THOMAS BREAKS THE TEAM SINGLE SEASON RECEPTIONS RECORD "IN STYLE" WITH AN INCREDIBLE TD RECEPTION
Coming into this game on Sunday at Tampa, Saint 2nd year WR Michael Thomas needs just 2 more catches to set a Saints single-season record for receptions.
The team record at the moment is still held by former Saints (and current Seahawks) tight end Jimmy Graham, who had 99 of them back during the Saints-record breaking season of 2011. Thomas is currently at 98.
In this game, Thomas not only easily breaks Graham's single season receptions record, but does it "in style" — with a magnificent and gravity-defying one-handed TD catch in the back of the end zone in which Thomas is able to "tap his toes" down just barely in-bounds, earning him the ESPN Sports Center "Play of the Day" along with it.
#4. SAINTS ROOKIE CORNERBACK MARSHON LATTIMORE "SHUTS DOWN" BUCCANEERS WIDE RECEIVER MIKE EVANS ONCE AGAIN — AND HIS PERFORMANCE CLINCHES THE 2017 NFL DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR AWARD
Saints fans of course will remember the "marquee match-up" that occurred back in the Week #9 game between Lattimore and Evans in which the Saints rookie and leading Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate completely "shut down" the 6-foot-5 Evans, one of the NFL's top receivers, as he finished with one catch for 13 yards on six targets.
Lattimore's play obviously became a source of frustration in that game for Evans, which of course led to the 3rd quarter incident that day in which Evans gave Lattimore a hard shove in the back along the Tampa Bay sideline, leading to a brief melee involving several players (though the entire incident appeared to be provoked by QB Jameis Winston, who started "trash talking" Lattimore and eventually poked him in the back of the helmet).
Winston was later fined $12,154 by the League for his provacation.
Evans eventually was suspended by the League for his cheap shot on Lattimore; and while he went on to have a 'down year' by his standards, still has 66 catches for 946 yards and five scores. But Evans will MISS making the 1,000 yard receiving mark, as Lattimore "shuts down" Evans once again in this contest.
Lattimore limits Evans to 3 catches for 53 yards (leaving Evans with 999 yards for the season); and puts himself "over the top" with voters who then elect him as the 2017 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award winner in a few weeks from now.
#3. FOLLOWING THE LOSS OF HIS GRANDFATHER, DREW BREES DEDICATES THIS GAME IN HIS HONOR — AND HAS ONE OF THE BIGGEST GAMES OF HIS 17-YEAR NFL CAREER AS NEW ORLEANS CLINCHES THE NFC SOUTH DIVISION CHAMPIONSHIP
As Saints fans are likely aware by now: Saints 17-year veteran and future Hall-of-Fame QB Drew Brees yesterday received the sad news that his mentor as a boy growing up and his beloved Grandfather, Texas high school football coaching legend Ray Akins, died Tuesday morning according to media reports in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Akins, who was one of the winningest coaches in Texas high school football history with 293 career wins, died at 7:25 a.m. on Tuesday, according to Gregory-Portland Independent School District officials. He was 92.
Brees is still expected to play this Sunday.
As a result of the unfortunate passing of his beloved Grandfather, Brees decides to dedicate this game on Sunday in honor of his memory — and proceeds to go out and have one of THE GREATEST games of his entire NFL career as he shreds the Bucs defense for 476 passing yards and 4 TD passes.
The Saints also secure the 2017 NFC South Division Championship, thanks to Brees' outstanding (as well as unforgettable and emotionally heart-warming) performance.
#2. MEANWHILE IT'S BEEN A TOUGH YEAR FOR BUCCANEERS QB JAMEIS WINSTON, AND THE SAINTS DEFENSIVE LINE MAKES IT EVEN WORSE
It's been a tough year for the Bucs, and even tougher for their 3rd year QB Jameis Winston; who has had a season that he probably would just like to forget.
Although Winston has had a decent season (3,141 passing yards, 18 TD's), he's also tossed eight interceptions, lost seven fumbles and been sacked 31 times.
Last week at Carolina he was sacked 6 times and fumbled on the last one, which Carolina recovered and ended Tampa's hope at making a possible comeback (which resulted in his on-the-field "meltdown" and emotional sidelines outburst, which we'll cover in just a minute in our last prediction).
In this game on Sunday, Winston's nightmare of a season will get even worse this one last time; as the Saints defensive line batters and bruises Winston for 4 sacks and a handful of QB "hits" and pressures, before he is eventually replaced by back-up Tampa QB Ryan Fitzpatrick early on in the 4th quarter.
#1. THE SAINTS ARE WINNING BIG IN THE 4TH QUARTER WHEN SUDDENLY THE TAMPA BAY SIDELINES IMPLODE — LEADING TO THE FIRING OF BUCCANEERS HEAD COACH DIRK KOETTER AFTER THE GAME
To say that Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter has "lost control" of his team this year might be the understatement of the entire 2017 season for Buccaneers fans.
As reported yesterday by ESPN Buccaneers beat writer Jenna Laine: the Bucs went (9-7) last season, Koetter's first as head coach, but have fallen to (4-11) in his second season and are showing signs of disarray.
Koetter acknowledged that a screaming match broke out in the locker room after the team's 22-19 loss to the Carolina Panthers this past Sunday on Christmas Eve. It was loud enough to be picked up by the Bucs' radio broadcast, according to a Tampa Bay Times report.
That was proceeded just minutes earlier by Bucs QB Jameis Winston's emotional outburst on the Buccaneers sidelines when he grew irate and began shouting and had to be restrained by teammates when addressing an official.
At one point, he came running full bore and nearly knocked over the Bucs' director of football operations, Shelton Quarles, as stunned teammates looked on.
And as we already mentioned: Winston and wide receiver Mike Evans were also involved in a sideline altercation with Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore in Week #9; in which Winston was fined for his involvement in the incident and Evans received a one-game suspension.
Koetter was asked yesterday if outbursts such as Winston's this past Sunday in Carolina, the screaming match and locker room confrontation right afterwards, or the situation in New Orleans a few weeks back were all symptoms of a coach who had lost his locker room and if he fears he has lost control of the team.
Koetter chuckled, smiled and said, "That's not a fear of mine."
That might be how currently sees things, but it won't be the case for very long.
This Sunday early in the 4th quarter, with the Saints having just increased their lead to 41-17 after Brees throws his 4th TD pass with a 72-yard TD bomb to a WIDE OPEN Ted Ginn, Jr.; the Tampa Bay sidelines suddenly implodes.
Bucs CB Brent Grimes and safety T.J. Ward began arguing over who's fault it was that Ginn was left wide open, and the two teammates begin swinging wildly at each other as if they were in a street fight while a stunned and bewildered Raymond James Stadium home crowd in Tampa looks on in shocked disbelief.
Standing just a few feet away and totally oblivious to it all (or maybe just trying to pretend he doesn't know that it's even happening), is Koetter — who later just a few minutes after the game learns that he has been relieved of his head coaching duties (a.k.a. "fired") in a brief written statement put out by team ownership (the Glazer Family).
The Saints go on to start making preparations for the Playoffs, while Tampa Bay will start to look for its 5th different head coach since 2008 after the firing of their greatest head coach Jon Gruden...........