Sean Payton said the New Orleans Saints have been in do-or-die mode for a few weeks now. That's unfortunate since the Saints have lost two of their last three games.
They enter Sunday's game against Tampa Bay two games behind the Buccaneers in the NFC South and knowing they don't stand much of a chance to win the division — or make the playoffs for that matter — without a win.
"We're at that point in the season where there's not a lot of wiggle room for us," Payton said.
The Saints (5-6) are a much better team than they were when the faced Tampa Bay on Sept. 16, a game the Bucs won 31-14. The biggest change is that they've found a level of offensive production missing during their four-game losing streak to start the season.
"Oh-and-four was awful," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "You knew we had a good team but for some reason it just wasn't happening. I think we just put too much pressure on ourselves to be perfect given the expectations. We finally started to relax and play confident and got back to playing like we know how."
In those first four games the Saints averaged 12.75 points per game, with a high of 14 points. Since then the Saints have averaged 27.4 points per game and have only scored fewer than 20 points once.
In their five victories, the Saints have averaged 30.6 points.
Part of that turnaround is the passing game. Quarterback Drew Brees has thrown more pass attempts (456) than any quarterback in the NFL. He's completed 67.3 percent of his passes and thrown 18 touchdown passes. Part of his totals are due to playing behind early in the season, Brees said.
"Our passing game has been effective now and we've gotten big plays off of it," Brees said. "We preach balance, but once we get into game and see how the defense is playing us, we go with what works."
Running back Reggie Bush leads the team in rushing (517 yards) and receptions (70) in place of the injured Deuce McAllister. Second-year receiver Marques Colston has rebounded to his rookie form with 68 receptions, 847 yards and six touchdowns. And the Saints defense has improved, though its pass defense is ranked 27th in the NFL.
The Saints are aware that this could be a bigger game, had they not lost two straight games to St. Louis and Houston after rebounding from 0-4 to 4-4. The Rams had not won before beating the Saints. The Texans held the Saints to just 10 points.
Winning one of those games would have allowed the Saints to tie the Bucs with a win on Sunday. Instead, the Saints face the prospect of falling out of the division race completely if they lose.
Brees said the team didn't get down on itself after the two game losing streak. They instead saw the next three games, starting with last week's win over Carolina, as an opportunity.
"Last week we sat there and stared (at a schedule) with three divisional opponents in a row and I think the thought was this is our opportunity," Brees said. "This is our chance."
Three things to watch on Sunday
He leads the team in receptions and he's receiving most of the touches with Deuce McAllister hurt. But will his injured shin allow him to be totally effective?
No quarterback has thrown more passes this season than Brees' 456 so far this season. He'll test a Bucs secondary that has played nearly lights out this season.
The run defense
The Bucs didn't run that well against it in their first meeting. But the Saints are tied for ninth in the NFL in run defense and the Bucs need a productive run game on Sunday.
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.