By FRED GOODALL
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tampa Bay’s path to its first Super Bowl championship in nearly two decades didn’t include winning the NFC South. However, the Buccaneers hope ending a 14-year division title drought will enhance their chances of getting back to the NFL’s biggest game.
The Bucs (10-3) can clinch their first NFC South crown since 2007 with a victory Sunday night. Veteran linebacker Lavonte David, in his 10th season with Tampa Bay, can’t think of a more fitting opponent to try to take that step against than four-time defending division champ New Orleans.
The Saints (6-7) have beaten Tampa Bay six straight times during the regular season, although the Bucs did get the best of their biggest nemesis by defeating New Orleans in the divisional round of the playoffs last January.
“It would mean a lot for me personally with not being able to win one throughout my career here and finally having the chance. You want to capitalize on that opportunity,” David said of Sunday night’s nationally televised matchup. “Last time we played on this stage, they put a whooping on us. Whenever you have the chance to go out there and play again and play for a lot more — it’s not just a regular-season game. There’s a lot more at stake, so it should definitely be a fun football game.
“For us to get this win would be really huge to clinch the division.”
Despite winning and sending Drew Brees into retirement on the way to capturing their first Super Bowl title since the 2002 season, the Bucs haven’t forgotten how it felt to lose by 35 points at home to the Saints on a Sunday night last season.
The regular-season woes against New Orleans continued in October, when the Saints won again despite losing quarterback Jameis Winston to a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of a 36-27 victory.
Tom Brady is 0-3 in the regular season again the Saints, compared to 21-5 against the rest of the NFL since signing with the Bucs in 2020.
“You’ve got two really good football teams. The last few times we’ve played, it all comes down to turnovers. Whoever wins the turnover battle wins the game. They’ve won it the most times,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “This is still one of the best defenses we see every single season. They look as good defensively as they ever have and Sean (Payton) finds a way to score points.”
UNDERDOGS & BIG DOGS
The Saints have lost five of six games since surprising the Bucs on Oct. 31. They’re a double-digit underdog, but are confident they still match up well against Tampa Bay.
“They’re still a super-talented team that you’ve got to show up and win those matchups, but we feel like obviously over the last few years that we match up well on paper,” New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins said.
“I don’t care if we’re 100 (point underdogs). We were underdogs last game. What did that mean?” teammate C.J. Gardner-Johnson said. “This group won a lot of games as underdogs. … Underdog is just a word. A lot of underdogs take out the big dogs.”
The Bucs have won four straight following a two-game skid. They’ll ensure themselves at least one home game in the playoffs by winning the division and are in the thick of the battle with Green Bay and Arizona for the top seed in the NFC.
Arians said home-field advantage figures to be more important this season than a year ago, when only a limited number of fans were allowed in stadiums due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Tampa Bay won three road games on the way to the Super Bowl.
“It’ll be a huge factor this year because it’ll be a packed house,” Arians said. “It’d be a big difference (between) 9,000 and cardboard slots in Green Bay and 60 or 70 thousand. … The more you can play at home the better.”
ON A ROLL
The Bucs have the NFL’s top passing attack and lead the league in total offense and scoring.
At 44 years old, Brady is tops with 378 completions, 554 attempts, 4,134 yards passing and 36 TD passes. The seven-time Super Bowl champion has never finished No. 1 in all four categories for an entire season.
STRENGTH ON STRENGTH
The Saints rushed for 203 yards last week against the Jets, when Alvin Kamara returned from a knee injury and joined Taysom Hill in the backfield. Now, the Saints’ potent run game clashes with a Bucs defense that ranks third in the NFL, allowing 91.2 yards per game rushing.
“It will be a good challenge,” Hill said, noting that well-executed QB runs can be harder to stop than handoffs to running backs because the defense has one extra blocker to deal with.
Hill was recovering from a concussion and wasn’t able to play when New Orleans beat the Bucs on Oct. 31, however the Saints still ran the ball well. The Saints rushed for 152 yards in that meeting, the most the Bucs had allowed all season until yielding 173 against Buffalo and Bills QB Josh Allen last week.