TAMPA, Fla. — The New Orleans Saints are going to the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to an offseason of speculation and uncertainty.
The Saints (11-4) and Bucs (4-11), already polar opposites in record, will be heading in different directions when they meet in Sunday’s regular-season finale at Raymond James Stadium.
With a victory, New Orleans will clinch the NFC South Division title. It’s a dramatic turnaround from an 0-2 start. Virtually no one expected a championship-level season to materialize.
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Meanwhile, Tampa Bay is trying to avoid closing the season with a sixth straight defeat, a status few observers predicted in the preseason, when the team was featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series and mentioned as a dark-horse Super Bowl selection.
Saints coach Sean Payton is closing in on his fourth division crown in his 11 seasons in New Orleans, a welcome improvement after three consecutive 7-9 finishes.
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter could have a shaky future after going 9-7 in his first season.
Even when faced with rumors about his job security, fueled by unsourced reports that ownership was considering a return to Monday Night Football broadcaster Jon Gruden, who won a Super Bowl championship with Tampa Bay after the 2002 season, Koetter has tried to focus on the business at hand.
And this week’s business is no fun at all.
Understandably, Koetter is concerned with the New Orleans offense, which features quarterback Drew Brees, a longtime Tampa Bay nemesis. But this season, the Saints have been propelled by their running game, led by rookie Alvin Kamara (684 yards, along with 75 receptions) and veteran Mark Ingram (1,089 rushing yards).
“Just look at their record, they’ve proven it,” Koetter said Wednesday. “New Orleans is doing on offense what every team in the NFL wants to do.
“They’re controlling the game with their running game and then they have a Hall of Fame quarterback (Brees) that takes advantage of every mistake a secondary makes with a downfield passing game. They have a dynamic screen game, but you ask any offensive coach in the league and if you can run the ball when you want to run it, that sets up everything else in your passing game.”
In recent years, it was a simple scenario for the Saints: It was up to Brees.
Not any longer.
Even though Brees has passed for 4,089 yards and needs 300 to avoid his low-water mark season with the Saints (4,388 in 2009), New Orleans has proven to be a better team with him throwing less often.
Beyond the passing yardage numbers, Brees has put up some eye-opening statistics. His interception percentage (1.9) is a career low. He’s completing 71.9 percent of his passes, which would be an NFL single-season record if that figure can be maintained Sunday.
For Payton, only one statistic matters — victories.
“We’re not in the business of playing fantasy football,” Payton said. “We really aren’t. We’re in the business of winning. So if that upsets all the people that have a player on our offense or defense or somewhere in the fantasy games of the world, then that’s tough. Our job is to win.”
In addition to his 2,009 passing yards, Brees only attempted 514 passes that season — when New Orleans won the Super Bowl. That was when New Orleans had the NFL’s fifth-best rushing offense, so again a diverse attack and less dependence on Brees is paying big dividends.
For the Bucs, third-year quarterback Jameis Winston has produced two of his most efficient performances of the season in defeats against the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers. Turnovers continue to be a problem — he had three lost fumbles against the Panthers — but his individual year is on the uptick.
Winston desperately wants to finish with a victory. He has lost eight consecutive starts, his struggles straddling three straight games when he didn’t play due to a shoulder injury (and three others when he tried to play hurt).
“There are a million ways you can slice up statistics,” Koetter said. “If you look at the games Jameis was healthy this year, his statistics are awfully good.
“It’s hard to say which games he was entirely healthy and which games he wasn’t, but we know there was a part there in the middle where he wasn’t. I think health is the No. 1 thing with Jameis’ recent performance and then he has been making excellent decisions.”
Tampa Bay’s season has a what-might-have-been quality when considering Winston’s injury. Seven of the Bucs’ 11 defeats were by six points or fewer.
But that hasn’t decreased the pressure on Koetter, who said he hasn’t spoken to anyone from the Glazer family, Tampa Bay’s ownership group, about his future.
Has the speculation been a distraction?
“Well, of course. You know, it’s your life,” Koetter said. “It’s what you do. So just flip it around and of course it is (a distraction). But we’re all — players and coaches — we’re paid to do a job. You try to do it to the best of your ability. That’s all you can do.”