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Playoff Game Preview

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NFC Divisional Round playoff preview: Buccaneers at Saints

Viewers can watch the broadcast live on FOX/FOX Deportes at 6:40 p.m. ET on Sunday as well as stream live on the NFL App and Yahoo Sports app.

Buccaneers vs. Saints: The Backstory

Mike Evans recently called the Saints the Buccaneers' biggest rival. While New Orleans might not agree, it makes sense that Evans feels as such. The Saints have been the class of the NFC South for much of the Pro Bowl wideout's career and the better part of the past 15 years. They're who the Bucs want to be.

Only one game separated the two in 2020, but the divide seemed much greater given New Orleans' two convincing wins over Tampa Bay, including a 38-3 thumping in Week 9. The Bucs' offense, and Tom Brady in particular, struggled in both contests, while Drew Brees played efficient, error-free football.

Naturally, the two future Hall of Famers, along with the wits of Sean Payton and Bruce Arians generate the headlines. That's why this game is being played Sunday night. But Saints DC Dennis Allen and Bucs DC Todd Bowles were more affecting in the two prior meetings. Allen's unit, especially, erasing the run game while keeping Brady uncomfortable (five interceptions, six sacks), paved the way for double-digit wins.

New Orleans (13-4) is riding a mini high, earning three lopsided victories following a two-game slide in early December. Tampa Bay (12-5) has won five in a row, but it's beaten only one winning team all season. All of its losses came to playoff teams, including the 8-9 Bears, so there's reason to still be skeptical. Neither the Saints nor Bucs were overly impressive last week but led throughout in wild-card wins over the Bears and Washington, respectively.

This weekend marks the franchises' first playoff showdown. Emotions might run a bit high.

Under Pressure

Brees: Could this be his final game? While the 42-year-old might not be explosive anymore, he remains effective most weekends. The 2020 campaign was the second in a row in which he's missed extended time to injury. A consummate competitor, he refused to allow 11 cracked ribs end his season, picking up in December where he left off in November. Some believe this is his best chance in several years to get to February. Only Brees knows for sure if it's his last one. If so, he carries that anxiety into every game. Here's guessing the NFL's all-time leader in completions and yards would trade those marks and a host of other records he holds for another ring. After all, it's why he's still around after 20 seasons.

Arians: Speaking of rings, the candid coach boldly asserted two weeks ago it's “Super Bowl or bust” for the Bucs. That encapsulates the aura surrounding his squad since Brady arrived last March. But TB12 has nothing left to prove, despite how determined he is. His legacy is intact and essentially complete. Arians, however, has been working toward another title for years. He earned two some time ago as an assistant with the Steelers, and is a two-time Coach of the Year. He's got credentials. But winning the Super Bowl as a head coach would be much sweeter. Competing for the crown is also what's expected with the presence of Brady and the Bucs' other offseason additions. They were built to win it all now. Given the wealth of talent, the team's uneven play has generated some strong criticism of its coaching. A trip to the Divisional Round obviously marks progress for a franchise that hadn't been to the postseason since 2007. But this early of an exit, as Arians' proclamation noted, would be quite unfulfilling.

Matchup to Watch

Brees vs. Bowles: What the aging QB has been losing in arm strength, he can typically make up for with guile. Payton's schemes have become just as paramount to Brees' production. No longer New Orleans' best player on offense -- Alvin Kamara holds that title -- Brees remains its most important. His ability to execute a quick-game passing attack has helped the Saints become one of the league's top rushing outfits. Bowles is adept at creating pressure and taking away the short stuff. This will be strength versus strength. Honorable mention goes to Brady and his third look at the Saints defense. Tom has been defeating time of late, leading the NFL in passing yards, touchdowns and yards per attempt since Week 14. After two subpar performances against New Orleans earlier in the season, he has to play better for the Bucs to win, and he likely will.

Final Thought

Much is often made about the difficulties of beating a team three times in the same season. It's a fun narrative. Too bad it's not true.

Per NFL Research, Sunday will be the 33rd instance of teams meeting in the playoffs after one team swept the regular-season series. The sweeping teams are 20-12 in the postseason and 17-7 when at home. Interestingly, they're just 6-4 in the Divisional Round. The Saints' plus-46 point differential over the Bucs is also the largest among the 33 teams to record a series sweep. That piece of history is not on New Orleans' side, however. The three teams boasting the next biggest differentials lost the ensuing playoff meetings -- familiarity breeding complacency, perhaps. But each of those games came in the Wild Card Round.

The Saints are the NFC's No. 2 seed, a perennial Super Bowl contender. In other words, the Bucs will need more than rivalry contempt to win in New Orleans. They'll probably need to play their best game of the season.

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