After Week 1 thriller, Saints and Bucs took different paths

The New Orleans Saints will play at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-7) and New Orleans Saints (10-2) face off Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox) in Tampa, Florida, it will be a rematch of a history-making season opener that had 88 combined points scored -- the most in a Week 1 NFL game. The Bucs won 48-40, but since that game, both teams have gone in completely different directions.

Here's a closer look at the teams and how each has changed since their most recent meeting 13 weeks ago:


Saints: The Saints were just getting warmed up when they posted 40 points and 475 yards against the Bucs in Week 1. They're now tied for second in the NFL with 34.9 points per game this season. And their scoring efficiency is on a historic pace. They have scored points on 58.1 percent of their drives -- which would be the highest rate of any NFL team since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. Quarterback Drew Brees, 39, is having the best season of his career. He is on pace to break NFL records for passer rating (123.2) and completion percentage (75.5) with 30 TD passes and just three interceptions (the Saints' 10 turnovers are second-fewest in the league). Receiver Michael Thomas, the RB duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram and the entire offensive line have also been standouts.

Bucs: With starting quarterback Jameis Winston suspended for the first three weeks, Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 417 yards and four touchdowns in Week 1. His production wasn't sustainable though because of turnovers. The Bucs' 30 turnovers this season are more than any other team in the league. A lack of continuity at quarterback has hurt them. Winston started Weeks 6-8 and was benched in favor of Fitzpatrick in Weeks 9-11. Coach Dirk Koetter went back to Winston in Weeks 12-13. Despite a league-high 442.7 yards per game, the Bucs are scoring on 37.6 percent of their drives, which ranks 17th in the league.


Saints: The Saints' defense failed to force a turnover or record a sack against the Bucs in Week 1. Since Week 2, the Saints rank 10th in the NFL in yards allowed per game (338.8), seventh in points allowed per game (20.09), second in sacks (37) and tied for first in turnover ratio (plus-11). They've gotten tremendous play out of their front seven, and are giving up just 75.4 rushing yards per game -- the most in the NFL. Peyton Barber's 69 rushing yards in that first meeting were the second-most by any running back against New Orleans this season. Perhaps most importantly, Marshon Lattimore has gotten back to looking like a No. 1 cornerback again after his rare struggles against Mike Evans in Week 1. However, the Saints' pass defense is a nagging issue. New Orleans still ranks 30th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game (279.3).

Bucs: Under defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who was fired after Week 6, the Bucs registered just nine sacks, one interception, 440 yards and 34.6 points given up per game and allowed a 42.9 percent third-down conversion rate. Under Mark Duffner, Tampa Bay has registered 24 sacks (second in the NFL), six interceptions, 363 yards, 26 points allowed and a 33.3 percent third-down conversion rate. The improvement could be related to quality of offenses faced. The Bucs' opponents in Weeks 1-6 have averaged 26.4 points per game versus the 21.4 points per game in Weeks 7-13. The defense is dealing with a slew of injured players, and Sunday's game will serve as a solid measuring stick.

Coaching matters

Saints: If possible, Sean Payton's offense has gotten even more diverse than the Bucs will remember from the past decade-plus. He has been using third-string quarterback Taysom Hill as a read-option QB/WR/TE/RB. In one formation, he lined up both Brees and backup QB Teddy Bridgewater as wide receivers. In another formation, he had zero quarterbacks behind center before Hill motioned into place. Payton has also gotten even more creative with his use of Kamara and Ingram together on the field at the same time. That will be another new wrinkle for the Bucs, since Ingram was serving a suspension in Week 1.

Bucs: Koetter's decision to bench Winston instead of working with him through his struggles was a difficult one; Winston had thrown 11 interceptions in five games, after all. Koetter also made a critical move when he fired Smith after Week 6 instead of during the Week 5 bye. That might have been the difference-maker in a Week 6 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Koetter decided to hold on to kicker Chandler Catanzaro through nine weeks despite him missing four field goal attempts and four extra point attempts. Three of the Bucs' six losses in Weeks 1-9 were decided by five points or less.

Key moves

Saints: The Saints made a big move when they traded fourth- and seventh-round picks to the Giants for Eli Apple and benched last season's No. 2 starting cornerback, Ken Crawley. But the results have been mixed so far (Apple got picked on by the Cowboys last week). The Saints' secondary depth remains their biggest question mark, since they also lost veteran nickel corner Patrick Robinson to a season-ending ankle injury in Week 4. New Orleans also made a splash by signing veteran receivers Dez Bryant and Brandon Marshall at midseason to shore up a young receiving corps. However, Bryant tore his Achilles in just his second practice with the team. And Marshall has not yet been active for a game -- though it will be interesting to see if that changes during this long practice week following a Thursday game.

Bucs: Despite DeSean Jackson requesting a trade and a secondary marred by injuries, the Bucs were idle at the trade deadline, though sticking with the guys they have might wind up paying off. Safety Andrew Adams and cornerback Javien Elliott combined for four interceptions and linebacker Kevin Minter produced a sack in a 24-17 win against the Panthers last week, and defensive end Carl Nassib has 5.5 sacks. All of those players were street free agents.

Turning point

Saints: The Saints handed the Los Angeles Rams their only loss of the season, beating them 45-35 in Week 9. The Saints' offensive line did not surrender a single sack against Aaron Donald, and the defense stepped up in key moments. That game capped a brutal Weeks 7-9 stretch in which they also won at Baltimore and Minnesota. After the Rams' game, they started to look invincible, winning their next three games 51-14, 48-7 and 31-17. That's why their 13-10 loss at Dallas came as such a stunner. They need to prove they can bounce back against Tampa Bay -- otherwise the Dallas loss might be considered a turning point for the wrong reasons.

Bucs: The Bucs' high offensive output during their first three games (they averaged 473 yards and 34 points) masked a very weak defense, but they had zero answers for Matt Nagy's playcalling in Week 4 at the Chicago Bears in a 48-10 loss. It showed that their high-powered offense couldn't beat a top-10 defense (and still hasn't).

Rest of 2018 projection

Saints: If anyone has earned the benefit of the doubt, it's Brees and the Saints' offense, which had scored the fifth most points in NFL history through their first 11 games. Chances are, they will remain among the top three offenses in the league while finishing something like 13-3 or 14-2 -- especially if they get standout left tackle Terron Armstead back soon from a pectoral injury. However, the schedule is no picnic, with a Monday night trip to Carolina in Week 15, followed by Pittsburgh at home on a short week in Week 16. And even a 14-2 record might not be enough to move past the 11-1 Rams for the NFC's No. 1 seed. Home-field advantage will be critical. The Saints are 5-0 in home playoff games since 2006 and 1-5 in road playoff games.

Bucs: The Bucs are riding a two-game win streak and Winston hasn't turned the ball over in consecutive games for the first time since Weeks 4-5 of last season. They have the slimmest chances of a winning season with three of their four remaining opponents at 7-5 or better. Otherwise, they'll miss the playoffs for the 11th straight year and an uncertain future awaits for Koetter, Winston -- who's trying to become the first Bucs quarterback drafted to sign a second contract -- and general manager Jason Licht. If there is a positive, the Bucs could be in position to land a top-10, or even top-five draft pick for 2019.