Well, there ya have it folks. The NFL strikes again.
It’s fair to say that if you would’ve even mentioned Tampa Bay in the playoff race a month ago, laughs would have emitted from the sky, ground, trees - hell, even your dog would’ve cracked a smile.
But here they are, playing to keep the season alive. A win on Sunday would not only be monumental, it would put them in excellent playoff position with just three games remaining on the schedule.
Bucs Nation’s own Alex Salvarezza, Bailey Adams, and Evan Winter sat down to discuss what this week’s game means and if Tampa Bay can save their season.
How exactly can a win save this season?
Bailey Adams: At 5-7, the Bucs’ playoff hopes are pretty slim right now. However, a win on Sunday against the Saints picks those hopes up just a little bit more. It seems obvious that the Bucs have to win their remaining four games to have a realistic shot at making the playoffs, and even at 9-7, they would need some help to get in. Obviously, none of that help matters if Tampa Bay doesn’t pick up wins over the Saints, Ravens, Cowboys and Falcons in the next four weeks. That difficult stretch starts Sunday with a New Orleans team that the Bucs beat in week one. Another upset victory for Dirk Koetter and his team would keep playoff dreams alive for at least one more week.
Evan Winter: If they can pull off the victory on Sunday, then there is no reason to think the Bucs couldn’t run the table and possibly get into the postseason. The Saints are arguably the best offense in the league and their defense has been playing great football in recent weeks. They are a complete team.
Everyone knows how talented the Bucs are on paper. We know how naturally confident NFL players are. All winning does is boost that confidence. A season sweep against the Saints would give them the exact boost they need.
If that happens then anything is possible.
Alex Salvarezza: This is definitely a big game. If the Buccaneers can somehow find a way to win on Sunday, they will only be one game out of the playoffs with three weeks left.
Do I think they win on Sunday? Absolutely not, but if they pull off another upset win over arguably the best team in the NFL, Dirk Koetter will start to have a pretty good case as to why he should come back for a fourth season.
Win or lose, where do the Bucs go from here?
BA: As of now, every remaining game is classified as a “must-win” for Tampa Bay. That stays the same with a win over the Saints on Sunday. Win and you give yourself a chance. A victory would have the Bucs at 6-7 with three weeks left, meaning they’d firmly be “in the hunt” during the season’s final stretch.
On the flip side, a loss would be too damaging to overcome. A loss drops Tampa Bay to 5-8, which would mean a shift back from playoff talk to conversations about whether or not Dirk Koetter should still be the team’s head coach in January. A loss would mean losing out the rest of the way for a higher draft pick would be better option for the Bucs’ long-term future. These are two extremely different paths we’re looking at, huh?
EW: Bailey hit it on the head. Every game is do or die at this juncture in the season. It’s even worth mentioning that Jason Pierre-Paul said the Bucs are in “win or go home” mode earlier in the week.
A win keeps the faint playoff hopes alive. A loss all but denies a postseason berth and opens the team back up to speculation as to what will happen after the 2018 season ends.
I do think that regardless of whether they win or lose, this team will still fight until the end. They had every reason to give up until this point, but they clearly haven’t. I don’t see why that would change beyond this week.
AS: A win makes the game in Baltimore next weekend the biggest of the season and that would continue every week after each win. If the Buccaneers do lose, the last three games will be all about players fighting for spots on the roster next season and more importantly, Dirk Koetter fighting for his job. I believe an 8-8 record would buy him one more season.
EW: It still feels like he’s gone unless they make the postseason. Even then, it will still be a toss-up as to whether or not he should stick around.
Tampa Bay wins if....
BA: They get after Drew Brees and at break even or better in turnover margin. Forcing Brees to make mistakes is extremely difficult. There’s a reason he has 30 touchdown passes to just three interceptions this season.
When it comes to getting the ball to receivers quickly, Brees is as good as anyone. But you stand absolutely no chance as a defense if you’re giving him time to sit comfortably in the pocket and go through his progressions at will. The Bucs will need big days from Jason Pierre-Paul, Carl Nassib, Gerald McCoy and the rest of the front seven. If those guys don’t show up, it’s hard to see the secondary surviving.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Bucs need to stay away from turning the ball over. Jameis Winston has played back-to-back clean games, not turning the ball over once. He has been smarter with the ball, tucking it and running when he needs to and also taking sacks when necessary. Winston needs to continue making good decisions this week if the Bucs are going to stay in the game and ultimately win it.
EW: On defense, Dallas provided the obvious blueprint, which is pressure, but I’m going to add another layer: win in the short-to-intermediate game.
Now this will be easier said than done, but the New Orlean’s offense thrives in that range. Whether it’s a screen/dump to Alvin Kamara or an intermediate post to Michael Thomas, if you can take away that area of the field then you will give the Saints trouble.
On offense, it has to be the battle at whoever lines up on the outside at wide receiver. Tampa Bay was able to put Mike Evans on Marshon Lattimore on the outside in Week 1, but that matchup will be hard to come by with Desean Jackson out.
The Bucs should be able to find plenty of room over the middle, but those outside throws will be key in beating the Saints.
AS: Tampa Bay has to win the turnover margin. They cannot break even and they certainly cannot lose in that aspect. The only reason the team came away with victory in week one was because they were plus two in that department. A repeated performance is needed if they have any chance on Sunday.
On offense, Jameis Winston must take care of the ball for the third consecutive game and make good decisions. If the team does fall behind early, will he be able to stay the course and not force anything or try and do to much? Yards will come for this offense like they do every week, but you need to stay patient in a game like this and every time they get in the red zone, they have to come away with seven.
Tampa Bay loses if....
BA: Old issues return. As mentioned above, Winston has been extremely efficient and smart with the ball in Tampa Bay’s back-to-back wins. If he goes back to his previous form and starts forcing throws when he doesn’t need to, the Bucs will absolutely lose. That’s not the only returning issue that would cause a loss. If Tampa Bay’s kicking woes come back, for whatever reason, count on a loss. Since joining the team three weeks ago, Cairo Santos has been money. There’s no reason to think he’d start slipping up now, but we’ve seen too many times in the past what one missed extra point and/or one missed field goal can do in a game. Just like turnovers, the worries in the kicking game need to stay in the past. Otherwise, the Bucs lose and the rest of this season doesn’t matter.
EW: Jameis doesn’t have time. If he can’t set his feet and have time to make his reads, then the Bucs don’t stand a chance. The Bucs will have to have success through the air in this game. As much as you want to pound the rock to keep the Saints off the field, the Bucs don’t have a reliable enough ground game to lean on that plan.
The Bucs also have to score touchdowns in the red zone. Points will be a necessity and they won’t be able to keep up with the Saints if they’re settling for kicks.
AS: The D-line doesn’t get any pressure and the O-line gives up constant pressure. It’s as simple as that.