Bucs’ pursuit to unseat Saints starts with Brady’s debut
The New Orleans Saints have won the last three NFC South championships. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made the most offseason headlines of any NFL team in strengthening their roster to try to end the Saints’ reign and make a Super Bowl run.
The teams will meet Sunday in the New Orleans Superdome in a season opener that will provide an early gauge of where the division race might be headed.
After 20 seasons and six Super Bowl championships with the New England Patriots, Tom Brady makes his debut as Tampa Bay’s quarterback in the building where he won his first Super Bowl at the end of the 2001 season.
“He’s going to elevate the level of play and the culture of his team,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of Brady, who recently turned 43. “He has all the things that go into someone that doesn’t come around very often.”
The Buccaneers went 7-9 last season and haven’t been to the playoffs since 2007. The addition of Brady immediately put the playoffs and deep playoff run on Tampa Bay’s radar, but the organization didn’t stop there. It signed running back LeSean McCoy, and Brady’s presence enticed former Patriots All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski out of retirement.
Then the Bucs scooped up another running back after Jacksonville waived former No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette less than a week ago.
Tampa Bay also has Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans as a holdover, though he’s questionable for Sunday because of a hamstring injury that forced him to miss practice Wednesday.
“(Gronkowski) is the only guy I’ve played with, so I know what he can do,” Brady said. “It’s a good, hard-working group — really smart players. It’s going to be up to all of us to come together and see how we can make it all work.”
The Bucs’ attempt to acclimate so many new pieces was complicated by the absence of an offseason program and preseason games because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Saints, 13-3 last season, seemingly are better prepared to overcome those limitations because of a more stable roster.
New Orleans did add wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, safety Malcolm Jenkins and former Bucs starting quarterback Jameis Winston during the offseason.
Though this NFC South showdown is one of the most attractive match-ups on the opening weekend, there won’t be any fans to witness it because of COVID restrictions.
“Ultimately there’s a rectangular field out there with stripes on it,” Payton said. “We’re playing a game that involves technique and discipline, and the team that tackles and blocks and does the fundamentals best typically wins on Sunday.
“Now it does help when you’re playing at home and the opponent has trouble with noise. All of those things are going to be different this season. We’ve got to create the energy ourselves.”
The three straight division titles for the Saints have each been followed by disappointing playoff losses — all three being decided on the final play of the game, the last two in overtime.
Drew Brees, the NFL’s all-time leading passer, seriously contemplated retirement in the offseason after an overtime loss in Minnesota in a wild-card playoff in January.
“I’m on borrowed time. I got nothing to lose,” Brees said. “So I’m turning it loose and letting the chips fall where they may. I know that everything happens for a reason. And in most cases, failure is the best teacher. That’s the approach I’ve always taken.
“That’s the approach this team has taken. And I feel like we found a way to garner strength from each one of these moments from over the last few years. And it’s only made us better.”
The Saints have two starters who are questionable for Sunday, right guard Cesar Ruiz (ankle) and defensive end Marcus Davenport (elbow), neither of whom practiced Wednesday.
–Field Level Media