Bucs eye opportunity against Saints

A shot at ruining New Orleans’ perfect record is not the only reason the struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers and young Josh Freeman are excited about facing the unbeaten Saints.

Sunday begins a stretch in which the Bucs (1-8) play five of seven games against NFC South rivals, and they’re eager to see how their rookie quarterback holds up in his first tour through the division.

They’ll also face the Saints (9-0) in New Orleans on Dec. 27.

“It’s perfectly planned for No. 5 (Freeman),” coach Raheem Morris said. “It’s a chance for him to get five opportunities against division foes that he’s going to face for the next 10 to 15 years, or whatever it is.”

The 21-year-old former Kansas State standout has been impressive in two starts, leading fourth-quarter rallies from double-digit deficits against Green Bay and Miami.

The Bucs beat the Packers for their only win two weeks ago. They took the lead against the Dolphins in the fourth quarter, only to lose 25-23 on a field goal in the closing seconds last Sunday.

New Orleans coach Sean Payton is impressed with Tampa Bay’s improvement since Freeman became the third quarterback to start for the Bucs this year.

The Saints survived a scare on the road against another one-win team last week, beating St. Louis 28-23, and anticipate another difficult matchup as they try for the first 10-game winning streak in club history.

“He has given them a spark,” said Payton, whose team has lost three of its last four meetings against Tampa Bay and hasn’t won at Raymond James Stadium since 2006, when New Orleans swept the season series.

“I think the players around him have responded, and he’s playing with confidence. Certainly we understand the strengths and weaknesses of when you play a younger player, but that being said, he’s a guy that’s elusive, can scramble to run and has a big arm. … We’ll have a challenge.”

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is on pace to join Peyton Manning as the only players in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards in four consecutive seasons. He’s thrown 19 touchdowns, but a recent spate of turnovers caused concern for the Saints.

After throwing two interceptions and losing one fumble in the first five games, Brees has thrown seven interceptions and lost three fumbles in wins over Miami, Atlanta, Carolina and St. Louis.

He’s also been sacked nine times in the last four games after going down four times in the first five.

“(Turnovers) will just kind of happen in spurts, just like a baseball player that hits a slump. You kind of hit a slump for a few games,” Brees said, adding the Saints have run into a string of teams playing some of their best ball of the season.

“The games only get harder from here on out, no matter what the record of the team is you’re playing. I can definitely say that Tampa is a much better team than (its) record, as were the Rams.”

Freeman has made plenty of mistakes the past two weeks, however, he’s played well when it matters most. He has the league’s third-best fourth-quarter passer rating (117.9) behind Brees (124.2) and Brett Favre (119.3) and has thrown for three TDs and no interceptions in crunch time. He threw a go-ahead TD pass on fourth down against Green Bay, then produced two fourth-quarter TDs to give the Bucs a chance at Miami last week.

Overall, the 17th pick in this year’s draft has completed 50.8 percent of his passes for 417 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. Ball security has been a concern with six fumbles, although the Bucs have lost only one of them.

“He’s going to make some mistakes,” Morris said. “But obviously, he is getting better and better every week.”

Teammates talk about the rookie’s presence in the huddle and poise in critical situations, yet the 6-foot-6, 248-pound Freeman scoffs at the notion he’s been the biggest difference in the Bucs the past two weeks.

“I wouldn’t say it’s because of me,” Freeman said. “I think it was coming off the bye week, guys really got out of feeling like they were an 0-7 team. The attitude and mentality everybody has been bringing to practice is not reflective of our record.”

In addition to two games against the Saints, the Bucs will face Atlanta twice and division foe Carolina once over the last seven weeks of the season. That not only should give Freeman a feel for the NFC South, but also provide him – in the rookie’s words – “something to look forward to next year.”

Brees recalled his first go-around against a set of division opponents in 2002, when he was in his second NFL season and started every game for the San Diego Chargers.

“I definitely remember those days. It’s a process. You have your good games and bad games,” Brees said.

“Inevitably, you just try to get better every day and worry about the things you can control, continue to just kind of play within yourself and play within the system.”