NFL Preview - New Orleans (1-0) at Tampa Bay (0-1)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Nothing is a Brees in Tampa these days.
The New Orleans Saints take to the road for the first time in the 2013 season when they visit reeling NFC South rival Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium.
The Saints were more than solid in their season debut against the reigning division champion Atlanta Falcons, erasing a 17-13 third quarter deficit and holding on for a dramatic 23-17 win.
Drew Brees threw for 357 yards and two touchdowns in the contest and the much- maligned New Orleans defense came up with a huge stop late to preserve the victory and give head coach Sean Payton a positive mark in his return to the sidelines.
"It felt good to be back," Payton said. "It was just very much all the thing you felt as a coach in week one versus a division opponent. There's those butterflies that are healthy, all the things that you're trying to control and make sure your team has the best chance to win."
The Saints defense surrendered an NFL-record 7,042 total yards last season but held Atlanta's potent offense scoreless over its final four drives in Week 1, the last of which ended when veteran safety Roman Harper intercepted Matt Ryan in the end zone on 4th-and-goal with 43 seconds left.
Brees did his part as well, shaking off a second-half interception to complete 26-of-35 throws that included a 7-yard connection with Jimmy Graham which put New Orleans up 20-17 with 6:22 left in the third quarter.
Darren Sproles hauled in six of Brees' passes for 88 yards, while Marques Colston had five catches for 68 yards and a touchdown to help make Payton a winner in his first game back from a year-long suspension for his involvement in the Saints' well-publicized bounty scandal.
"It was just important to get the first win," said Payton afterward. "It's good to start the season that way. I thought we fought hard, especially late in the game."
The Bucs, meanwhile, should have joined the Saints in the win column but were done in during an 18-17 loss to the New York Jets by a late-game personal foul penalty on star linebacker Lavonte David.
At the conclusion of a 10-yard scramble with seven seconds remaining, Jets rookie QB Geno Smith was pushed by David as he exited the playing field, a faux pas which set Nick Folk up for a game-winning 48- yard field goal.
The Jets defense had made a critical mistake moments earlier when it left Vincent Jackson uncovered on the possession prior, with the receiver's 37-yard catch allowing Rian Lindell to kick a go-ahead 37-yard field goal with 34 seconds left.
Behind by two points and time against him, Smith first fired a 25-yard pass to Kellen Winslow and spiked the ball to stop the clock prior to his scamper which set New York up for the winning score.
David's penalty was the 13th of the day for Tampa Bay and the boneheaded play also wasted an extremely productive day from Jackson, who tore up New York's secondary to total 154 yards on seven receptions, while also spoiling Darrelle Revis's return to MetLife Stadium.
"We've got to be smart about it," embattled Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "The strike zone is decreasing in the National Football League, and we've got to make sure we stay within the rules."
Revis, less than 12 months removed from ACL surgery on his left knee, looked spry as ever while diving for deflections in his Tampa Bay debut. The Bucs acquired the All-Pro cornerback last April from the Jets for two draft picks.
"I feel good getting back out there, just doing what I love to do," said Revis. "I was just more excited to be out there with my teammates. They've been anxious, I've been anxious, so it was a great feeling."
Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman had an up and down game, throwing for 210 yards, a touchdown and an interception on 15-of-31 passes. His best play of the day was when he found an uncovered Jackson on 3rd-and-10 with under two minutes remaining, which set up what appeared to be the winning score.
New Orleans leads its all-time series against Tampa Bay by a 25-17 margin. The Saints are coming off of a season sweep against the Buccaneers in 2012, including a 41-0 win on December 16 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which was the club's first shutout since 1995. Earlier in the season on October 21, New Orleans escaped Tampa with a 35-28 win.
The Saints will be aiming to start the season 2-0 for the first time since the 2010 campaign and increase its winning streak against the Bucs to four games.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
An efficient and balanced Saints offense put up 419 total yards, while successfully converting six-of-13 third down opportunities in Atlanta.
Brees worked in the usual suspects, Colston, who became the club's all-time receiving leader with his 533rd career catch in the second quarter, Sproles who had a game-high 140 all-purpose yards and Graham, who caught the third quarter go-ahead seven-yard touchdown from Brees.
"It's hard to believe that it's been eight years, but consistent is a great way to start," Payton said when talking about Colston. "He's been very consistent. He's a task master in that somebody who will work very hard at his game, specifically on the individual routes. He's big inside; I know Drew (Brees) has a lot of confidence in him."
The depth at the skill positions, at least proven depth, is probably not what it was during New Orleans' Super Bowl heyday but this group is still awfully difficult to stop when Brees and the other main characters are healthy and hitting on all cylinders.
This is a big test for Tampa Bay's defense, especially the remade back end featuring Revis, Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson and rookie corner Johnthan Banks.
"He's an elite quarterback, not only in this time but in the history of the league," Schiano said when queried about Brees. "This guy is special. You're not going to stop him, no one does. Can you contain him? That's more of the challenge, that's what we need to do."
Offensively, the Bucs need more consistency from Freeman and a bigger ability to hit things down the field when teams are focusing in on second-year running back Doug Martin, who ran it 24 times for 65 yards and a touchdown versus the Jets.
"You have to make people pay when they're going to try to take away Doug Martin," Schiano said. "You can't always pound your head into a wall. You've got to make them pay."
Tampa Bay's offense could get a boost from the return of ex-Saints guard Carl Nicks, who practiced Wednesday for the first time in a month as he attempts to return from a MRSA infection and toe surgery.
Brees has won three in row as a starter against the Bucs, completing 80-of-112 passes for 942 yards with 10 TDs and just two picks over that span. Since joining New Orleans in 2006 the All-Pro leads the NFL with 33,928 passing yards and 246 TD throws.
Meanwhile, Freeman had a career-high 420 passing yards the last time the Saints were at Tampa and Jackson set a franchise record with 216 receiving yards on seven catches. Freeman is particularly effective when he's able to extend things and make things out of nothing.
"One of the things with Josh has always been his ability to extend plays," Payton said. "It's been tough for us."
Expect a shootout and it's hard to bet against the Saints in that kind of environment.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 34, Bucs 24
09/12 11:57:55 ET