The New Orleans Saints rarely have faced adversity this season, but they will get a chance to rebound from a loss for only the second time when they visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday afternoon.
Drew Brees and the Saints (10-2) were held to a season-low point total in a 13-10 loss at the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 29. Not only did it snap New Orleans' 10-game winning streak but it dropped the team one game behind the Los Angeles Rams for the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
"Sometimes you have to lose a battle to win the war," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said after practice Wednesday. "You learn a lot from something like that. I don't think we were getting ahead of ourselves or anything like that. I just think we honestly just had a bad day and you turn on the film and it's glaringly obvious where we failed and (we need to) make sure that that doesn't happen again."
The Saints also will be looking to avoid a sweep at the hands of the Buccaneers, who went into New Orleans in Week 1 and rolled to a 48-40 victory behind 417 yards passing and four touchdowns from Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Tampa Bay (5-7) lost seven of eight after opening the season with back-to-back victories, but the Bucs have resuscitated their playoff hopes with consecutive home wins over the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers. Still, the players realize there is no margin of error the rest of the way.
"We already know we're in our playoffs and I can't stress it more," Buccaneers defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said. "It's either win or go home."
New Orleans looked unstoppable during the second half of its 10-game run, averaging 41 points during its last five wins before Brees was held to a season-low 127 yards with one touchdown and only his third interception of the year by the Cowboys.
"They're going to come with some fire," Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said.
The Saints managed only 176 total yards against Dallas, the lowest total since Brees and head coach Sean Payton arrived in New Orleans in 2006. McCoy said the Buccaneers need to follow the same blueprint used by the Cowboys to slow down their high-powered division rival.
"They hit them every play -- didn't let them breathe. Just didn't let them breathe," McCoy said of Dallas' defense. "You hit somebody -- I don't know how many street fights you guys have been in, but when you get somebody on the ground, you just keep hitting them. They can't recover, and that's kind of what Dallas did."
Brees threw for 439 yards and three touchdowns in the season opener against Tampa Bay, which had the league's worst pass defense for much of the season and still ranks No. 28 in that department (274.4 yards).
The Buccaneers switched defensive coordinators, firing Mike Smith and replacing him with linebackers coach Mark Duffner. Since the change, Tampa Bay ranks second in the NFL in sacks (24), is tied for third in third-down percentage (33.3) and 10th in passing yards per game (216.3).
"Well, our players have responded to a lot of different opportunities," Duffner said. "We've put some guys in some spots based on a number of things, injuries and so forth. But the plus of it, we got a hungry group of guys, a bunch of guys who really want the opportunity to play and when given that chance, so far they've responded and so we're anxious to see that continue."
That defense will need to figure out how to stop the connection of Brees to Michael Thomas, who is third in the NFL with 91 receptions and had 16 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown in the season opener. Running back Alvin Kamara has rushed for 742 yards and 11 touchdowns and is second on the team with 65 catches.
The Saints' defense also will be seeing a different look from Tampa Bay's offense. Jameis Winston is back at quarterback after replacing Fitzpatrick for the second time and has four touchdown passes and zero interceptions over the past two games.
"They are throwing the ball as well as anyone in the league," Payton said. "They are moving the ball as well as anyone. They are first in third-down percentage. They present a number of challenges. Jameis is buying some time with his feet. He's (become) a stronger player in the pocket, a little bit more difficult to sack."