Saints want to lock up No. 1 seed vs. Tampa

Published 3:44 am Sunday, December 27, 2009

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Nine times, the road to the Super Bowl has ended in New Orleans. This year, it could very well go through New Orleans for the first time.

The Saints can wrap up the franchise’s first No. 1 NFC playoff seed with one win in their final two regular-season games, starting with this Sunday’s meeting with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Louisiana Superdome.

Knowing that prize is right there for the taking has helped soften the blow of a 24-17 loss to Dallas last weekend that ended the Saints’ bid to become the first NFC team to finish a regular season 16-0.

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“We know that we win this game, then we are the No. 1 seed in the NFC. That’s all that matters and that was a big goal on our list of goals as a team,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.

After winning nine of their first 11 games by double digits, the Saints (13-1) have had three tough games in a row, including a pair of three-point road wins preceding the loss to the Cowboys. Brees mentioned earlier this week that perhaps winning had covered up some weaknesses that finally got exposed against Dallas. The quarterback said he hoped that lone loss would sharpen New Orleans’ focus on the areas now demanding improvement.

“Obviously, there’s things … we’ve had a chance to look at and point at and say, ’Check your ego at the door, these are the things we need to get better at. This is what got us beat,”’ Brees said. “We fix these things, we’re going to get back to where we want to be and even beyond where we were and be playing the kind of football we want to be playing going into the playoffs.”

New Orleans hardly looks vulnerable to the Buccaneers (2-14), who lost at home to the Saints 38-7 when these teams last met a little more than a month ago.

“I’m sure they’re looking to rebound on Sunday, looking to get back on the winning side and get hot for the playoffs,” Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris said.

Coming off a their first road victory of the season, a 24-7 triumph at Seattle, the Buccaneers are gaining confidence and hoping they can be more competitive against the Saints this time.

Morris took over calling defensive plays after the lopsided loss to the Saints and the Bucs have given up an average of 17.3 points and 324 yards in four games since — a substantial improvement over the averages of 29.4 points and 378.3 yards during their first 10 games. Tampa Bay also had four interceptions at Seattle last weekend.

“As a defense we’re playing a bit faster than we were the last time we played them, but we’ve got to go out and show that,” Bucs linebacker Quincy Black said.

Despite the improvement on defense, the Buccaneers still lost three of their last four games because quarterback Josh Freeman and the offense kept struggling. Things started looking up when Freeman, after throwing eight interceptions in his previous two games, threw only one against the Seahawks while completing a pair of touchdown passes.

“Josh is more comfortable in the pocket and making adjustments to audibles on the line of scrimmage,” wide receiver Maurice Stovall said. “Everyone is pretty much healthy. … We’re coming into this game with a lot of enthusiasm and momentum. We’re very excited and very confident this week.”

Perhaps one source of the Buccaneers’ confidence is the Saints’ recent trouble on defense. New Orleans has allowed more than 300 yards passing in three straight games, and has fallen to 25th against the pass and 22nd in overall defense, just one spot higher than at the end of 2008.

“The most important thing is getting the guys ready to play and doing a better job than we did a week ago; not just defensively in the secondary, but in all areas,” head coach Sean Payton said. “The focus really isn’t in the numbers.”

Saints wide receiver Robert Meachem said the offense deserved most of the blame in the Saints’ only loss. New Orleans, which leads the NFL with about 420 yards and 34.5 points per game, gained a season-low 336 yards against the Cowboys and converted only one of seven third downs.

This week, Meachem said the goal is not so much to put up tons of yards or points, but to control the game.

“Really to us, the stats don’t matter,” Meachem said. “What the offense wants to do is … help our defense. We’ve got to keep them off the field. We can’t expect them to keep up their end of the bargain because they’re tired.”

Part of the problem for the Saints lately has been falling behind early. New Orleans has been outscored 30-3 in the first quarters of the last three games combined. In turn, Payton has been quicker to abandon the run, which was more effective when the Saints were protecting leads earlier this season.

In the past three games, the Saints have passed 134 times and run 63 times.

“We all know that we don’t want to put ourselves in these deep holes anymore so that we have to fight our way back into the games,” running back Reggie Bush said. “We will eventually correct it.”