We have seen both future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks go head-to-head before, including twice this regular season, but this will be the first time the two meet against each other in the post season.
Both teams got here by shaky overall performances, but great games by each respective QB. Brees went 28-39 for 265 yards and two touchdowns in the Saints’ 21-9 home win over Chicago, while Brady went 22-40 for 381 yards and two touchdowns in the Buccaneers 31-23 road victory in DC. Both stat lines show the greatness, and differences, between each legend: Brees was masterfully efficient, with many short/intermediate passes; Brady was not as accurate, but got the ball further down the field and made big play after big play. Now, they will go head-to-head and show off everything they have with a conference championship appearance on the line.
However, this game is about more than just those two. It will feature Marshon Lattimore matching up against Mike Evans yet again, a battle usually won by the Saints. It also features one of the best rush defenses in the NFL going up against Louisiana legend Leonard Fournette, who is on a resurgence of his own. Meanwhile, THE best rush defense in the league will try and contain Alvin Kamara, still making a huge name for himself game in and game out. At the heart of great matchups, this game features two of the best and most experienced head coaches go head-to-head yet again, and the winning team will certainly be the better-coached team on Sunday. That’s not a coincidence, either. But, it’s a long and tough road to victory, so here are a few of the many keys for the Saints to come away with another playoff victory in New Orleans.
Get the ball to Michael Thomas
Normally, for a premier receiver in the NFL, this is easier said than done. A lot of teams, especially in the playoffs, game plan accordingly to try and stop the opposing team’s top player. For Michael Thomas, he isn’t like other receivers; his stats speak for themselves, but his fluid-yet-tough route-running pops on film. He’s able to get separation when given enough time and play bully-ball when he’s unable to get free. No matter what teams have thrown his way over the years, Thomas finds a way to earn his paycheck – and then some. He broke the record for most receptions in a season (149) in 2019, and is bouncing back from an injury-riddled 2020.
For his career, Thomas has 74 receptions (off 91 targets) for 899 yards (12.15 yards per reception) against the Buccaneers for four touchdowns. This season, Thomas did not perform great against the Bucs in either matchup, but there were legit reasons. Week 1 was a feel-out game, and Tampa wanted Thomas shutdown. He finished with three catches for 17 yards before suffering an ankle injury which would sideline him for a good chunk of the season. He returned to play them during the Week 8 blowout, his first one back from injury and was still able to haul in five passes for 51 yards, both of which led the team. Tampa Bay’s secondary has not changed much from the past few seasons besides the addition of stud rookie safety Antione Winfield Jr. Carlton Davis leads the team with four interceptions, which is nice, but he and the rest of the Bucs secondary still get exposed too often for their own comfort. They finished the 2020 season 21st in passing defense, and they did not look very stout against no-name wonder Taylor Heinicke last week.
This should open the doors for a game plan heavily featuring Thomas this weekend. Getting him the ball has constantly worked in the favor of the Saints, including recently. In their Wild Card game, he helped lead New Orleans to a touchdown early in the third quarter with a great 38-yard snag, and this was after he opened the game up with a touchdown of his own. If plays like that are made by Thomas, the Saints will be in great shape. However, they will need a little more production and looks to Thomas to comfortably win this game. Matchups like these almost force a team to get the ball to their best players whenever they can, and Sunday will show us if that reigns true.
Get at least two turnovers
Possessions, possessions, possessions.
Putting the ball in the hands of Brees and this offense while keeping it out of the hands of Brady will be key on Sunday. There are a few ways to get turnovers, but the Saints defense thrives off one: interceptions. They tied with a couple of other teams for the league-lead of 18 team interceptions for 2020, something that is not normal around New Orleans. Most years, this team has had an awful defense, especially in the secondary. But thanks to a resurgence since 2017 under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, the Saints now compete with the best when it comes to defensive output. In the 38-3 blowout, the Saints picked Brady off three times. They should look to exploit that yet again to get extra possessions, possibly leading to more points.
Another way to attain turnovers on Sunday: sack fumbles. Or fumbles, period. Running back Ronald Jones, who may make his return on Sunday, coughed up the ball a few costly times during the regular season, leading to him being benched multiple times. Even though Brady is one of the best-protected QB’s in the league, he was sacked three times against Washington, and the Saints got to Brady a combined six times in their two matchups in 2020. It only takes one big hit to knock the ball loose, which can change the entire game. New Orleans is a top-10 sack defense yet again, and they will hope to use their talent to keep their defense off the field as much as possible come Sunday.
Red Zone efficiency on both sides of the ball
Big plays are going to happen in this game; it’s a given. With the caliber of weapons for both Hall of Fame quarterbacks, it would be shocking to not see multiple plays (and touchdowns) of 25 or more yards. Especially from the Bucs, who can give the ball to Evans, Chris Godwin, or Antonio Brown and get deep into opponent’s territory – if the play doesn’t go for a touchdown. This means a lot of red zone opportunities for Tampa, but hopefully not more than New Orleans. On the season, the Bucs have the 7th best red zone percentage in the NFL. Unfortunately, the Saints rank 29th defensively in the red zone. Even though they don’t allow teams into the red zone that often, it spells trouble for the Saints when they do.
This will need to improve to help pull out a win on Sunday, the Saints offense will need to match that energy to keep up. Most should expect a shootout game, with the score ramping up (the over/under is 52), and the Saints likely will not be able to shut down Tampa’s offense like they did in Week 8. The Saints need to either: A) keep Tampa out of the red zone as much as possible, which they will try; B) force them to kick field goals instead of crossing the goal-line, saving four points each time that is successful; or C) keep up with the Bucs by getting into the red zone just as often, if not more. Either way, in between each team’s 20-yard line will be where the action will happen if everything goes accordingly.