Coming off an excruciating home loss, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are on the outside looking in at first place in the tight race for the NFC South.
They’ll try to bounce back on the road as they visit the last-place New Orleans Saints.
The Buccaneers had an opportunity to remain tied with Carolina atop the division and knock off the NFC’s hottest team. But Matt Bryant missed a potential tying 29-yard field goal with 2:47 to go and Tampa Bay was left with a 13-10 loss to the Chicago Bears that left it tied with Atlanta (7-4) for second place in the South, one game back of Carolina (8-3).
“It was one of those days where something like that shouldn’t happen,” Bryant said. “But it happened, so you have to move on.”
With the Panthers scheduled to play the Falcons on Sunday, the Bucs have a golden opportunity to make ground on one of the teams. But first they must avoid a letdown against the Saints, who will be the first of three straight road opponents for Tampa Bay. The stretch includes next week’s visit to Carolina followed by a matchup with defending Super Bowl champion New England.
The Bucs went 0-3 on their last stretch of three straight road games (1996), and have dropped four of their last seven meetings with the Saints.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden feels good pass protection will be a key to beating New Orleans, which ranks sixth in the league in pass defense.
“We struggled in some areas (against the Bears), pass-protecting against a great opponent,” Gruden said. “Looking at New Orleans, they’ve got a fierce front four as well. We’re going to try to do everything we can to get as many people out (into patterns) as often as we can, but at the same time we’re going to try to pass-protect first.”
New Orleans got its third win of the season with last Sunday’s 21-19 victory over the struggling New York Jets.
“We faced so much adversity this year that we’re always playing an away game basically,” Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks said, referring to New Orleans’ Week 2 loss to the New York Giants at Giants Stadium, which was designated a Saints home game after the Superdome was rendered useless following Hurricane Katrina.
“We are not in the Superdome, so it is another place we have to go and play at to get another victory.”
Brooks threw three touchdown passes, including the game-winner to Devery Henderson, last Sunday, completing 17 of 23 passes for 181 yards as New Orleans ended a six-game losing streak.
“It’s huge anytime you get a victory, regardless of how it comes,” safety Dwight Smith said. “We passed a test and hopefully we’ll build from here.”
The Saints haven’t been an easy target in division games. They beat Carolina 23-20 in their season opener and lost 34-31 to Atlanta on Oct. 16. New Orleans’ last three games have all been decided by seven points or fewer.
“Every week is a nail biter to the end and I know our team is better than that,” Saints receiver Joe Horn said.