NFC South race heats up for Saints, Buccaneers down stretch
TAMPA, Fla. — Welcome to the NFC South, where two games over .500 gives the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a share of first place, and two under has the New Orleans Saints in position to make up ground in a hurry.
Talk about playing meaningful games in December.
The surging Bucs (7-5), and explosive, but inconsistent Saints (5-7) meet in a key divisional matchup Sunday, then play again in New Orleans in two weeks.
In between, the Bucs travel to Dallas for a prime-time date against the NFL-best Cowboys (11-1). The Saints, meanwhile, visit Arizona (5-6-1), which is trying to stay in playoff contention, too.
Tampa Bay closes the regular season against Carolina (4-8) and New Orleans finishes at NFC South co-leader Atlanta (7-5), meaning the Bucs and Saints both play three of their remaining four games within the division.
“The way our division is so tight right now, these games are huge,” Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter said. “Us and Atlanta sitting there at 7-5, New Orleans at 5-7. Just do the math for New Orleans, and we’re not too far ahead. So, it’s going to be huge.”
Part of the challenge for Koetter down the stretch will be keeping one of the NFL’s youngest rosters even-keeled.
With second-year quarterback Jameis Winston leading the way, the Bucs have won four straight — six of eight overall — to overcome a slow start. Tampa Bay hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007, and the winning streak is the team’s longest in four years.
Koetter, who’s in his first year as a NFL head coach, said he’s not “100 percent sure” of the best approach to helping the players cope with the mounting pressure of a playoff chase.
“I’m feeling my way through,” the coach said, adding that he tries to “tell it to them straight.”
“They know where they are, they know how important this game is. ... But how you gauge the team and how you feel even-keeled, that’s a hard thing to figure exactly,” Koetter said. “I also count on the leadership of our players to help out with that.”
The Saints relish the opportunity to get back in the race, though it won’t be easy playing three of their final four games on the road. Coach Sean Payton feels it’s imperative New Orleans focus on Sunday — nothing beyond.
“We can’t play all four” Payton said. “We’ve just got to play this one.”
Some things to know about the Saints and Bucs:
PUT IT ALL OUT THERE: Payton and Koetter both call offensive plays and insist they aren’t tempted to hold anything back on Sunday.
“I don’t think you’d ever go into a game saying let’s hold this for the second game. Certainly we’re not in a position to save or hold anything,” Payton said.
Koetter agreed: “I’ve never been like that, I don’t believe in that. Shoot. Who knows where we’re going to be in two weeks? Our most important game is right now.”
BRINGING PRESS-URE: The overlapping returns from injury of linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins have resulted in considerable improvement by the New Orleans defense in quarterback pressure. They’ve combined for seven sacks in the past four games. Ellerbe, who has been featured in blitz packages, has a sack in each of the Saints’ past four games. Rankins, a rookie drafted 12th overall last spring, has three sacks in that span.
FAMOUS JAMEIS: Winston’s steady progress has been a big part of Tampa Bay’s surge. The first overall pick from last year’s draft has thrown 15 touchdown passes versus four interceptions over his past eight games. He’s on pace to top 4,000 yards passing again, as well as set a franchise record for TD passes in a season.
CHEMISTRY QUES-TIONS: New Orleans’ lack of rhythm on offense last weekend against Detroit begged the question whether there was a carry-over from the dissatisfaction receiver Brandin Cooks’ expressed after not having a pass thrown to him during a Week 12 win over Los Angeles. Drew Brees threw to Cooks nine times against the Lions, and the third-year receiver had seven catches for 73 yards. Nevertheless, New Orleans struggled to convert third downs — and, ultimately, to score in a 28-13 loss.
GREAT BREES: Brees, who leads the NFL in passing yards, completions, attempts, completion percentage and TD passes, is 87 yards shy of throwing for at least 4,000 yards in 11 consecutive seasons. The Bucs, by comparison, have had just two 4,000-yard seasons (Winston 2015, Josh Freeman 2012) in team history.
—AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.