Well this is it guys, the regular season comes to a close today and there's a chance we will be done with Saints football for the year. Actually it's definitely done for 2013 either way, but I'd like to see some action in January 2014 too. The good news is we can keep the party going a little while longer if they just win, at home, against a bad team that's only won 4 games all year. It's been a fun season overall but the last month has been excruciating. Hopefully they can end 11-5 and close out the season on a positive. Most importantly this game gives the Saints a chance to end the year 8-0 at home, which would be pretty special. A true testament to the crowd advantage and experience in New Orleans. It would be an honor to have attended three of those eight personally, including this one. Here's five things I'm looking for today:
1. Everyone else's games.
This must be a dream come true for the NFL. When they made week 17 all divisional matchups I think they knew it would keep the playoff impact scenarios in play till the end. But this is crazy. Green Bay and Chicago is for a division title, and the loser is out of the playoffs. Ditto Dallas and Philadelphia. Games don't get bigger than those. Then you've got Seahawks-Rams, Cardinals-49ers and Panthers-Falcons all with major implications. The top seed can still be won by Seahawks, 49ers, or Panthers. The Saints can still get the 2 seed. The most significant thing to hope for if you're a Saints fan is a win, of course, and a loss by Carolina in Atlanta. That would secure the 2 seed for us. If the Saints lose, only an Arizona loss would get them the last wild card spot.
2. Can the offense score points?
Take away that Carolina home game and here are the last few point outputs by this offense, 13, 16, 7, 17, 23. That's pathetic. Gone are the days of the high potent explosive Saints offense. They have to grind for points now. And they only scored 16 on the Bucs in Tampa last time these two teams met. They need to show up and find a way to get in the end zone if they want to do anything whatsoever in the playoffs.
3. Can the Saints shut down the Bucs' offense?
The Bucs have the 32nd offense in the entire league. That's dead last for those of you scoring at home. Mike Glennon, the starter at QB, has actually played ok but he's not going to strike the fear of God into anyone. They've been rolling with Bobby Rainey at running back, with Doug Martin out, and while he's been better than expected he's not exactly a star. Vincent Jackson is still a stud, but that's really about it. They average scoring just 18.1 points per game. The Saints' defensive line really needs to feast on them. Something is seriously wrong if this Bucs team can put up points. Doug Martin paced the Bucs last time these teams squared off with 144 yards rushing, but they still only put up 14 points (7 of which was a pick 6), and they won't have Martin this time around.
4. Terron Armstead, tackle of the future?
Sean Payton gave some surprising endorsements to Terron Armstead this week after what everyone and their grandmother esteemed was a disastrous performance in Carolina. But Payton said he liked what he saw, that he was absolutely sticking with him, and all signs point to the Saints envisioning Armstead as their left tackle of the future. I'm not convinced, though, and I'm going to have to see a whole heck of a lot more than that showing in Carolina. The task is easier this week, though. Yes the Bucs' D is good, but they are 13th overall, not 2nd like Carolina. He'll have to face Adrian Clayborn who is decent and has 5 sacks this year, but is no Greg Hardy. And this game is at home, where things like crowd noise won't be a factor. So I'm eager to see how Armstead fares with the degree of difficulty lowered. If he struggles significantly again in this environment that's a really concerning trend.
5. Can the Bucs slow down Jimmy Graham?
One stands to figure if the Bucs can stop Graham, they stop the Saints' offense. He had 10 catches for 179 yards and a touchdown last time these two teams played, and the Saints scored just 16 in the win. So I have a feeling the Bucs will focus most of their attention on slowing him down. If Brees has to go elsewhere it's almost always been to either Colston or a running back, which hasn't hurt teams at all this season. We'll see if they can be successfull doing that.