NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-4) AT TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (4-11)
SERIES HISTORY: 52nd regular-season meeting. Saints lead series, 32-19, including a 30-10 victory Nov. 5 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The winning percentage (.627) is New Orleans' highest against any opponent. The home team won both meetings last season. The Saints have a 14-9 edge in Tampa. The first meeting was in the Superdome and was memorable for the Buccaneers, who prevailed 33-14 in 1977 for their first NFL victory after 26 consecutive losses.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Buccaneers rank last in the NFL in pass defense and sacks, which should allow Drew Brees to have success. Whether he's utilizing running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara out of the backfield or going farther downfield, Brees should have time to pick apart the Tampa Bay secondary.
The Bucs have to hope quarterback Jameis Winston stays hot and does a better job of protecting the ball. He has had a 130 or better rating the past two games, with four TD passes and no interceptions. But he lost three fumbles last week in a loss at Carolina.
Winston has done a good job of making quicker decisions and spreading the ball around. He will have to be sharp because the Saints have the perfect combination of pass rush and coverage.
Saints defensive end Cam Jordan is having his best year, with 12 sacks, which is fifth in the NFL. The Saints will focus on containing running back Doug Martin so they have a better chance of pressuring Winston and disrupting the Bucs' passing game.
The Saints will be very motivated to win this one, with the NFC South title within their grasp.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Bucs WR Mike Evans vs. Saints CB Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore was blind-sided by Evans in the first meeting this season and the Bucs receiver was suspended one game for it, so this matchup bleeds a little bad blood. Evans needs 54 yards to post his fourth straight 1,000-yard season to begin his career. He would join Randy Moss and A.J. Green as the only players to do it. Lattimore has five interceptions.
--Saints OL vs. Bucs DT Gerald McCoy. The Saints have had to juggle the offensive line, especially the interior, nearly every week because of injuries, but the performance has generally been solid. It will be necessary for C Max Unger and whoever plays guard to handle McCoy, who leads the Bucs with six sacks, to establish the run and give QB Drew Brees time.
FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
--Out: T Terron Armstead (thigh), DE Trey Hendrickson (ankle), TE Michael Hoomanawanui (concussion)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
--Doubtful: DE Robert Ayers (shoulder), LB Devante Bond (ankle)
--Questionable: TE Cameron Brate (hip, knee), WR Chris Godwin (ankle), WR DeSean Jackson (ankle), DE Ryan Russell (shoulder)
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Saints DL Sheldon Rankins. Cameron Jordan has 12 sacks and has been the primary playmaker on the defensive line; but, with teams concentrating on Jordan, opportunities are there for other linemen to make plays. Rankins already was having a solid year at tackle before he started contributing at end in the wake of Alex Okafor's season-ending injury last month. Rankins will be a key player against both the run and the pass, both inside and outside.
FAST FACTS: The Saints, already in the playoffs, can clinch the NFC South with a win. ... Saints QB Drew Brees has 70,200 passing yards and joined Peyton Manning (71,940) and Brett Favre (71,838) as the only players in NFL history with 70,000 yards. ... RB Alvin Kamara has franchise rookie records in scrimmage yards (1,426) and TDs (12). Mark Ingram (1,486, 12) and Kamara are the only teammates in NFL history with 1,300 scrimmage yards and at least 10 TDs in the same season. ... WR Michael Thomas ranks fourth in the NFL with 98 receptions. ... DE Cameron Jordan is tied for fifth in the NFL with 12 sacks. ... DE George Johnson has 2.5 sacks in his first two games with New Orleans. ... Tampa Bay QB Jameis Winston completed 21 of 27 for 367 yards and a TD in Week 16. In his past four games, he has 1,221 passing yards (305.3 per game), eight TDs and two INTs. ... RB Doug Martin has 545 scrimmage yards and three rushing TDs in five career home games vs. New Orleans. ... LB Kendell Beckwith ranks fourth among NFL rookies with 70 tackles. ... CB Brent Grimes has an interception in two of his past three home games. He had an interception in his last home game vs. New Orleans. Since 2013, he leads the NFL with 77 passes defensed and is tied for first with 20 INTs.
PREDICTION: The Buccaneers are showing signs of improvement and are hoping to end their five-game skid. The Saints still have too much at stake, however, as they can clinch the division and get a first-round bye.
OUR PICK: Saints, 26-20.