Tom Brady's hopes of winning a seventh Super Bowl and his first as a Buccaneer should come to an end against the Saints on Sunday, writes Mark Kirwan...
"There's a view that it's tough to beat the same team three times in the same season. Tampa will hope that holds on Sunday..."
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ New Orleans Saints
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Tampa roll the dice
Tampa Bay have gone all-in on winning a Super Bowl this season or next. That's what their signing of a free agent Tom Brady meant in the offseason, and it's going to plan so far.
Some doubted whether the Patriot icon could deliver as a free agent signing elsewhere, not just because of his age but because he was stepping away from the most successful system in the league.
But the 43-year-old chose wisely.
There was so much receiving talent to work with in Tampa before the additions of Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski. Chris Godwin and Mike Evans are two of the best pass-catchers he's had in his storied of his career.
Tom Brady's got jokes ahead of Sunday's matchup pic.twitter.com/T8ZxRXQgl0? SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 14, 2021
The Bucs also beefed up their O-line in the offseason to protect the pocket passer, and crucially, they also possessed a hugely talented defence and boosted that too with additions like Ndamukong Suh and rookie defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr.
With Brady added to the mix, the Bucs pushed their way towards the top of the offensive rankings this season. Only the Packers and Bills scored more points per game and their average winning margin was over a touchdown.
But they lost five games despite this prolific scoring rate, with the defence struggling against the pass. Two of them, to the Rams and Chiefs, were by just a field goal, and another against the Bears by a single point, but Sunday's opponents accounted for the other two - one by 11 and another by a whopping 35 in Tampa.
There's a view that it's tough to beat the same team three times in the same season. Tampa will hope that holds on Sunday, though last week's Wildcard win over Washington will have given plenty of pause for thought.
Taylor Heinicke at quarterback for the Football Team made the Bucs work harder than many expected as the favourite failed to cover on Saturday night. A repeat showing against a much strong Saints team and we could be looking at another double-digit defeat for Tampa.
New Orleans cruise
The Saints looked like they could be in a spot of bother early against the Bears last week in their playoff match-up, but eventually ran out comfortable winners, the 21-9 final scoreline made look better for Chicago by a meaningless late touchdown drive.
Running back Alvin Kamara had 99 yards on the ground and a touchdown despite missing the week before due to Covid, and Michael Thomas also returned to play with a score having been on IR.
Kamara will be up against it to repeat his rushing performance against the league-best running defence, but he's also a huge part of the passing attack, and that is this defence's weak spot.
They rank 21st in passing yards allowed, worse than the Bengals even.
Drew Brees has faced plenty of questions in what will probably be his final season, but there's no doubt he can still make the short, sharp passes when given the opportunity.
And even if he has trouble, the New Orleans defence is likely to prove a huge challenge for the Bucs and Brady. They were the third-best rush defence and fifth-best against the pass.
Their pass-rush, led by veteran Cam Jordan, can get to the 43-year-old passer. If they do, this could be a repeat of the regular season games between these two division rivals.
Given the Saints' dominance of the match-up this season - two wins by a combined margin of 46 points - it's a surprise to see the home team favoured by just 3 points at 10/11.
The Bucs obviously have huge scoring potential, but New Orleans's defence has really come on strong down the stretch and if they get pressure on Brady that could decide the game.
Coach Sean Payton' offence has already shown it can pick apart the Tampa D, so -3 on the handicap looks like a steal to me.
I'd look at the under on the total points of 52. These are two tough defences and both teams know each other well at this stage. The Bears last week kept the Saints out early and Tampa will hope to repeat that this week. If they do, this game should come in under the line at 10/11.
For a scorer interest, there are plenty of options, and I wouldn't dissuade anyone from taking Alvin Kamara at 9/2 for the first TD, but the double-digits available on the Bucs endzone target-hog Mike Evans to open the scoring leaps out at me. 10/1 for one of the best Redzone targets in the game is too good to turn down.
I'd look at the speedy returner Deonte Harris as an anytime option for the Saints. He's 9/2 and his ability to break open a secondary with his speed makes him appeal against this defence specifically.