New Orleans Saints (4-3) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-2)
When these two teams met back in week 1, the Saints won 34-23 in New Orleans, but the Buccaneers were significantly better in both yards per play (+0.7) and in first down rate (+8.11), losing primarily because of a -3 turnover margin and two Saints return touchdowns, which seemed very unlikely to continue going forward. As a result, the Buccaneers became underrated and I bet on them in each of the next 6 weeks, with the Buccaneers covering in all but one of them, while the Saints have split their 6 games, putting them a game back of the Buccaneers in the NFC South at 4-3. All in all, the Buccaneers rank first in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at 5.46% and look like one of the top Super Bowl contenders in the league.
The Buccaneers have lost one of their key defensive players Vita Vea, but they’ve offset that in recent weeks by having Mike Evans and Chris Godwin both healthy on offense. However, they’ve stopped being underrated as a result of their success and, if anything, have become a little overrated, which teams like the Buccaneers with dominant defenses (#1 in first down rate allowed over expected) tend to be, as defensive play can be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. We saw this last week when the Buccaneers unexpectedly let the underwhelming Giants move the ball against them with relative ease and the Buccaneers’ offense barely had enough to pull out the win. If they can’t continue dominating on defense, far from a given, the Buccaneers will have a tougher time going forward.
The Saints, meanwhile, aren’t too far behind the Buccaneers overall, ranking 7th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +2.03% and are the noticeably better team on offense, ranking 9th in first down rate over expected at +1.86%, while the Buccaneers rank 16th at +0.48%. The Buccaneers have had injuries on offense, most notably to Chris Godwin, who is healthy now, but their offensive injury situation hasn’t compared to the Saints, as the Saints have been without top wide receiver Michael Thomas since week 1 and have had supplementary pass catchers Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook miss time as well.
All three of those players are healthy now, most importantly Thomas who returns for the first time this week. With him back in the lineup, the Saints could easily go back to being the dangerous offense they’ve been in recent years. The Saints have also gotten key players back from injury on defense, with defensive end Marcus Davenport and cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins all missing time earlier this season before returning in recent weeks.
Now relatively healthy on both sides of the ball, the Saints actually rank atop my roster rankings, slightly ahead of the Buccaneers, who still have a key offensive injury due to the absence of stud guard Ali Marpet, who will miss his first game of the season this week. The Buccaneers will still be tough for the Saints or anyone to beat, but we’re getting 4.5 points with the Saints, so they should be a good bet. My calculated line favors the Buccaneers by a field goal at most and Drew Brees is 28-17 ATS in his Saints career as underdogs of a field goal or more. This should be a close game either way.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 New Orleans Saints 23
Pick against the spread: New Orleans +4.5