One win down, three to go.
After a bit of a lackadaisical start, the Saints took charge in the second half of their first playoff game, topping the Chicago Bears 21-9 during Wild Card Weekend.
It was a wonderful sight to see so many of New Orleans's offensive weapons back together again. Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and Deonte Harris each made massive contributions as the Saints controlled the clock, nearly doubling the time-of-possession battle.
Defensively, the Saints suffocated the Bears' offense, allowing just one third-down conversion, and held Chicago to just a field goal until the Bears scored a meaningless touchdown on the final play of the game.
The victory earns New Orleans a date with Tampa Bay in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. It's a post-season matchup that was predestined the moment Tom Brady announced his intentions to take his talents to Florida and join the NFC South.
New Orleans (13-4) vs. Tampa Bay (12-5)
Where/When to Watch: Sunday, January 17, at 5:40 p.m. on FOX
Brees. Brady. Round three.
In the two previous meetings, the Saints topped Tampa Bay by double-digits both times and dismantled the Buccaneers 38-3 in November.
Since that beatdown, Tampa Bay is 6-2, but has yet to notch a win against a team with a winning record. The Buccaneers lost 24-27 to both the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs in back-to-back weeks to close out November. During the entire regular season, Tampa Bay went 1-5 against future playoff teams.
The Buccaneers even earned the privilege to play the 7-9 Washington football team in last week's Wild Card round and only won by eight points. Washington was starting fourth-string quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who threw for over 300 yards and had two total touchdowns. Heinicke wasn't on an NFL roster until December 8, when he was signed to Washington's practice squad.
Brady was rattled by the Washington defense, completing just 55 percent of his passes and getting sacked three times. Thanks to his tremendous success in New England, Brady isn't used to playing during the Wild Card Weekend or opening the post-season on the road—the perks of playing in a terrible division for two decades.
The Buccaneers have a treasure trove of offensive weapons, but how many of them will be healthy enough to impact the game? Running back Ronald Jones didn't play last weekend, and wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin continue to battle minor nagging injuries. Evans caught six passes for 119 yards against Washington, with Godwin adding five catches for 79 yards and a touchdown of his own. They're seemingly on the mend, but their health is something to watch.
The interesting X-factor for Tampa Bay is receiver Antonio Brown. The last meeting between the Saints and Buccaneers marked Brown's NFL season debut, and he was still getting up to speed on the Tampa Bay offense. Brown has caught a touchdown pass in each of the last four games, including the playoffs. Last week, Brown caught two of three targets for 49 yards, including one touchdown, and rushed for 22 yards on his lone attempt. Brown's not typically used in the running game, but that's a special type of play the Saints defense should look out for, especially if Jones is sidelined again.
Since his season opener against New Orleans in November, Brown has averaged over eight targets a game, but those numbers are skewed a bit, based on his 14 targets in the season finale and a 13-target outing in a loss to the Rams. The last five games, Brown has been targeted the following number of times: 5, 7, 6, 14, 3. He's clearly a weapon, but Brown's not the same playmaker he was for so many years in Pittsburgh.
The Saints defense has had Brady's number so far this season. Of the 12 interceptions Brady has thrown, the Saints have picked off five of them. New Orleans sacked Brady three times in both previous meetings, and during the November blowout, New Orleans held Brady to zero touchdowns and a 57 -percent completion rate on his throws. Furthermore, in four of the five Tampa Bay losses this season (all against future playoff teams), Brady has thrown at least two interceptions.
Brady hates pressure, and the Saints defense relentlessly harasses opposing quarterbacks. The six-time Super Bowl winner is smart, though, and it's hard to keep fooling one of the best signal callers of all time, especially with so many talented skill players to complement him.
If the Saints' secondary can continue the trend of blanketing Tampa Bay's receivers, Brady will grow increasingly uncomfortable in the pocket, and that's when mistakes are made. Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson has sacked Brady three times this season, and if Hendrickson is cleared to go this weekend, expect No. 91 to be in the Tampa Bay backfield early and often.
Offensively, it looks as if New Orleans is finally getting back to full strength with the return of Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and Deonte Harris last weekend. Kamara had 116 total yards and a touchdown, Michael Thomas snagged five catches for 73 yards and his first touchdown of the season (crazy, right?), and Deonte Harris turned out one of his best performances of the year, with seven catches (on seven targets) for 83 yards.
When the Saints are able to generate that kind of production from their key offensive playmakers and Brees avoids throwing interceptions and getting sacked, New Orleans is unbeatable.
In the playoffs, even a small contribution from an offensive role player can be key. Jared Cook, Taysom Hill, and Emmanuel Sanders are obvious contenders for key contributions, but even a crucial catch or run from minor role players such as receiver Lil'Jordan Humphrey, rookie tight end Adam Trautman, or fullback Michael Burton can mean the difference between sustaining a drive and giving the ball back to one of the greatest quarterbacks on all time.
Just pray this game doesn't come down to Wil Lutz. The fifth-year kicker missed another field goal last week against Chicago, his fifth missed kick (four field goals, one extra point) in the last six games. Confidence in Lutz's ability in the clutch is dwindling by the week.
The postseason is Tom Brady time. No one has done it better in the history of the NFL, and it's only fitting that Brees's likely final playoff run goes through his celebrated contemporary.
Buckle up and get ready: It's time for two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history to battle for post-season glory and a chance to reach the NFC Championship.
Prediction: Saints 34, Tampa Bay 31