Stakes high for Saints on Sunday

Published 7:00 am Saturday, December 28, 2013

By Brett Martel

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — These are nervous times for Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints.

Only a month ago they were 9-2, in contention for the NFC’s top seed and a virtual lock for the playoffs — emphasis on virtual.

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Since then, New Orleans (10-5) has lost three of four and now must win its regular season finale against Tampa Bay (4-11) on Sunday to assure itself of a playoff spot.

Payton is trying to keep his players focused not on the ground they’ve lost, but on what they can still accomplish.

“There is a good many of them that understand how hard it is to get into this position and get a chance to win 11 games and play in the postseason,” Payton asserted, adding that he doesn’t see this week as one in which players “can’t value the importance of this game.”

“This would be like a playoff game,” Payton said.

The Saints can lose and still make the playoffs as a wild card, but only if Arizona also loses at home to San Francisco. On the flip side, New Orleans still could wind up as the No. 2 seed — with a first-round bye and second-round home game — if the Saints win and Carolina loses at Atlanta.

“We can be a two seed, a five seed, a six seed, or out of the playoffs,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “There are so many things that can happen, but none of the good stuff happens unless we win.”

The Buccaneers have lost two straight and struggled most of the season, and oddsmakers have listed the Saints as nearly two-touchdown favorites. Yet Tampa Bay could give New Orleans a tougher game than many expect.

When the Bucs started 0-8, four of their losses were by three points or fewer, including a 16-14 setback to New Orleans. Tampa Bay has since won four of its last seven. A fifth win might be enough to persuade ownership that second-year coach Greg Schiano has the pirate ship sailing in the right direction.

“We had some tough losses early in the year. A little bit of a weird year — some of those games we almost invented ways to lose,” Schiano said. “The biggest thing is our guys stuck together, there was no finger-pointing. We have a great group of guys in that locker room, some real strong leadership.

“As a football coach, you know that last (game) stays, that taste stays in your mouth,” Schiano added. “So you like to have it be a good one because it’s a long offseason with the bitter taste of defeat.”

Here are five things to know about Buccaneers-Saints:

THE 5,000 CLUB: Brees is closing in on his fourth 5,000-yard season. That was unheard of in 2007, when Brees became only the second QB in NFL history — after Dan Marino in 1984 — to pass for 5,000 yards in a season. Since then he’s done it again in 2011 and 2012. Brees needs 219 yards passing to do it yet again.

PRODUCTION PROBLEMS: The Buccaneers, who’ve gone 4-8 with rookie Mike Glennon at quarterback, are 29th in the league in scoring, last in passing offense and last in total offense, averaging 276.1 yards per game. They’ve posted new season-low totals four of the past five games, including 170 yards in last week’s loss at St. Louis.

PROTECTION PROBLEMS: Brees has been sacked 36 times this season, the most in his career and 10 times more than in any other season in New Orleans. In his first four seasons in New Orleans the most he was sacked was 20 times. But Brees doesn’t like his offensive line being judged by sack totals.

“That’s not fair. Throw in all the factors of me hanging in there trying to get some balls downfield,” Brees said. “That’s on me — not throwing the ball away maybe. But then there have been those times where you hang onto it and you do get the big play. … I think our guys up front have played great.”

QB PRESSURE: The Bucs sacked Brees four times in the first meeting and have reasons to be confident they can mount consistent pressure again. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has a career-best nine sacks. And with 34 sacks overall, Tampa Bay has its highest total since 2005.

SUPER DOME ADVANTAGE: The Saints look to go 8-0 at home for the second time in three seasons. This season, New Orleans’ average victory margin in the Superdome is 17.4. Only two home victories were by single digits.