Tampa Bay (9-6) at New Orleans (11-4)

By MATT BECKER, STATS Senior Writer Friday, Dec 31, 2010 Kickoff: 1:00 pm EST Sun Jan 2, 2011

A week after not even being assured a postseason berth, the New Orleans Saints could earn home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs if things fall their way in Week 17.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ postseason outlook isn’t quite as encouraging.

While the Saints go into Sunday’s meeting at the Superdome with an outside shot of capturing the NFC’s top seed, the Buccaneers need to defeat an opponent with a winning record for the first time all season and have two more outcomes go their way to simply make the playoffs.

Facing a red-hot Atlanta team that was undefeated at the Georgia Dome and poised to lock up home-field advantage in the NFC, New Orleans (11-4) rallied for a 17-14 victory over the Falcons on Monday night to clinch a return to the postseason. The Saints, winners of seven of eight, are hardly satisfied, however, after winning the Super Bowl last February.

“I don’t view it as a check mark in what we’ve wanted to accomplish,” coach Sean Payton said. “We want to accomplish bigger things than just getting into the postseason.”

While making the playoffs isn’t the ultimate goal for the Saints, a postseason berth would be a significant accomplishment for Tampa Bay (9-6) after winning just three games last season.

To earn the NFC’s final wild-card spot, the Buccaneers must beat New Orleans and have Green Bay lose to Chicago and the New York Giants fall to Washington. Although a win over the defending Super Bowl champions doesn’t guarantee the Bucs a playoff berth, a loss automatically eliminates them.

“That’s all we can think about. That’s our playoff game,” coach Raheem Morris said. “If we go out and win it, whatever happens happens. … If you waste time during the week worrying about scenarios, usually you take away from time in preparation, and we don’t like to do that.”

Morris declared during training camp that this season was a “Race For 10” victories, but reaching that mark won’t be easy.

Tampa Bay, 9-1 against teams with losing records, has been outscored 141-74 in losing all five games against opponents with winning marks. That includes a 31-6 home loss to the Saints on Oct. 17.

Drew Brees(notes) was never sacked as he picked apart the Bucs’ defense, passing for 263 yards with three touchdowns and an interception for a 109.2 quarterback rating. He has thrown for 12 TDs and five picks in five games against Tampa Bay since 2008, leading the Saints to three wins, but it’s possible he won’t have Marques Colston(notes) available after the team’s leading receiver underwent knee surgery this week.

Brees could also be without running back Pierre Thomas(notes) after he appeared to hurt his left ankle at practice. Thomas, who missed nine games earlier this season with a severely sprained left ankle, accounted for 102 yards from scrimmage in the win over Atlanta.

Payton says Thomas is questionable for Sunday, but is declining to discuss whether Thomas had a setback.

Brees, selected to his fifth Pro Bowl on Tuesday, threw a pair of costly fourth-quarter interceptions Monday but came through when it counted. He engineered a 13-play, 90-yard drive that ended with a 6-yard touchdown pass to rookie Jimmy Graham(notes) with 3:24 remaining to put the Saints ahead.

“It feels good,” Brees said. “You just want to punch your ticket to the big show, and we’ve done that. Obviously Carolina needs to beat Atlanta so we can get that one seed.”

In the unlikely scenario that the two-win Panthers win in Atlanta on Sunday and New Orleans beats Tampa Bay, the Saints would win the South and the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC would go through the Superdome. If that doesn’t pan out, the Saints would have the No. 5 seed and play a wild-card game on the road against the NFC West champion, which will be the winner of Sunday night’s St. Louis-Seattle game.

“We’re going to be on a crash course for this week’s game, period,” Payton said. “Our focus is strictly on playing this game and knowing that there’s still a lot at stake potentially.

“This is going to be a tough test for us, especially coming off of a Monday night game. Tampa is coming in and they’re still in the hunt, and when you’re in the hunt you’re desperate.”

The Bucs also are coming off one of their best games of the season, and they’re much improved offensively since facing the Saints two months ago.

Josh Freeman(notes) tied a franchise record with five touchdown passes and had a 144.2 quarterback rating in last Sunday’s 38-15 win over Seattle, further establishing himself as a solid passer in his second season. He has thrown for 17 touchdowns to just three interceptions in 10 games since playing New Orleans, also benefiting from rookie LeGarrette Blount(notes) and an emerging ground game.

Blount rushed for a career-best 164 yards last Sunday and needs 59 to reach 1,000 for the season. He wasn’t part of the offense in the first meeting, and Tampa Bay managed a season-low 42 rushing yards.

“I think our guys are really excited that they get a chance to play them again,” Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. “We were very disappointed after that first game.”

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