- The Saints defense ranked in the top 10 in both rushing success rate and passing success rate allowed over the final eight weeks of the season, while the Bucs were in the bottom half of the league in both stats over the same stretch
The Buccaneers and Saints meet Sunday night in a matchup of the all-time passing yardage and touchdown record holders. As it stands, Drew Brees has thrown for more passing yards than any quarterback in NFL history, with Tom Brady about a thousand yards behind. Brady meanwhile holds the all-time record for passing touchdowns, with Brees trailing by 10 there. These two surefire Hall of Famers will duke it out as they each try to push for another Super Bowl run.
Statistically, Brees showed his age this year. His 7.5 yards per attempt tied a personal 10-year low, and his always-great completion percentage fell back to the lowest rate it’s been since 2016. And yet, for all the talk of his arm issues and the occasional missed throw or two, he’s still mostly gotten the job done, at least in part due to an offense designed around shorter throws.
One stat that controls for the depth and difficulty of a throw is completion percentage over expectation. According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Brees’ CPOE is +1.2 this year, meaning he’s completed slightly more passes than expected. That’s down for Brees, who in 2019 was at a CPOE of +6.3, second in the league. He led the NFL in the stat in both 2017 and 2018.
But Brees’ dropoff in that category hasn’t been universal — in 12 qualifying games, he has had a negative CPOE just three times, including both Weeks 1 and 2. The third poor passing game was his Week 15 return from injury, a game during which he still seemed to be impacted by the multiple rib fractures that kept him out four weeks. In the three games, since Brees’ CPOE has been +7.4, +3.1, and then +8.4 in last week’s Wild Card win over the Bears with Michael Thomas back in the lineup. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Thomas to the lineup, as he provides a reliable man coverage beater that Brees struggled without at times, like against the Chiefs and their man-heavy defense in Week 15.
In other words, while Brees is certainly fading, this doesn’t appear to be a typical age cliff, and Thomas’ return provides him a full arsenal of skill position weaponry that hasn’t been there most of the season. Brees’ downfield accuracy in particular has been spotty, but early-season results suggested he was completely toast and he’s since pushed back. He and the Saints did get a Week 1 win over this Tampa team despite a poor passing day, then Brees was particularly sharp in the rematch, completing a season-high 81% of his passes with four touchdowns in a 38-3 rout.
Brady’s 2020 performance doesn’t require the same types of qualifications. In Bruce Arians’ more vertical passing offense, Brady’s pushed the ball downfield far more often than his later Patriots days. Brady threw 40 touchdown passes in 2020, just the second time in his career he’s hit that mark in a season, and his 4,633 passing yards were his highest total since 2015 and the fifth-most he’s accumulated in a season over his long career.
But Brady’s impressive play may not provide the substantial advantage over Brees and the Saints offense that it appears on the surface, and thus I think this game may be decided more on the defensive side of the ball. To that end, the Saints have been the more consistent defensive unit, particularly in the latter part of the season. The Bucs’ defense has also been strong all year, but from Week 10 through Week 17 they fell to below league average in success rate against both the run and pass, then they allowed a Washington offense led by Taylor Heinicke to post 375 total yards and 23 points on them last week.
Over the same late-season stretch, the Saints ranked in the top-10 defenses in success rate against both the run and the pass, and the Bucs and Saints shared five common opponents over those eight weeks, including both hosting the Chiefs’ top-ranked offense. The Saints’ defense also looked very impressive in their Wild Card win over the Bears last week.
I’m backing New Orleans -3 here. This should be a classic matchup, and while Brady is the easier quarterback to trust based on his 2020 play, Brees’ decline may be a bit overstated. Brady also has the more difficult defense to navigate, and Brees is at home in the Superdome where he’s frequently played at a high level throughout his career.
NFL Expert Picks
Saints -3 @ -109
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We're really getting to the business end of the season as this weekend throws up the Divisional Round, which sees the best 8 teams in the NFL face off. Saturday sees Aaron Rodgers welcome the Rams and their incredible defense to Lambeau after they kept Russell Wilson in check last week. Next up is the Ravens @ Bills, as the league's best ground game faces one of the best passing attacks in football. Sunday sees the biggest spread of the round as the underdog Browns face the Chiefs at Arrowhead. The final game of the round sees divisional rivals, the Saints and Buccaneers, meet for the third time this season. Can Tom Brady and Tampa Bay get their first win when it matters? We'll find out.
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