METAIRIE — Though Sunday’s NFC South clash between New Orleans and Tampa Bay has minimal playoff implications, it will mark the 213th consecutive regular-season start for Buccaneers defensive back Ronde Barber.
It also might be the last time the cornerback-turned-free safety steps on the field to face the Saints.
Soon after this season ends, his 16th in the NFL, the 37-year-old Barber will decide if it’s time to follow in the footsteps of twin brother, Tiki, who retired six years ago after a stellar 10-year career with the New York Giants.
In the meantime, Barber and the Buccaneers (6-7) will try to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive by running the table against the Saints (5-8), St. Louis Rams (6-6-1) and NFC South-champion Atlanta Falcons (11-2).
“If it’s in TV, if it’s in radio, sitting at home on the couch with my kid, coaching lacrosse games, I could do a number of things,’’ Barber told New Orleans reporters on a conference call this week. “I’m not ready to make a decision on it. I’m pretty sure it will play itself out when the time comes.’’
It seems clear that Barber has not played himself out this season, despite the fact many of his younger teammates refer to him as “Uncle.’’ At first, he didn’t know if the nickname was “meant as an insult or a sign of respect.’’
“But, I’ve come to realize that they’re just giving me my due because I’ve been doing it so long and I’m still playing at the level that I am,’’ said Barber, who has started 221 consecutive games counting nine playoff contests, including Super Bowl XXXVII.
The stat sheet this season suggests the Buccaneers’ “old man’’ can still bring it after all these years — 77 tackles, four interceptions and one sack. His streak of 212 consecutive starts is the longest among current NFL players. Whether all those numbers add up to a sixth trip to the Pro Bowl for Barber remains to be seen.
If not, Barber can reflect warmly on the reception he received in Week 1 from team officials and a sold-out Raymond James Stadium against the Carolina Panthers.
In commemorating his 200th consecutive start, the Bucs organization offered free parking, half-priced concessions (excluding alcohol) and a Ronde Barber gym sack for all those in attendance.
In his first start at free safety, Barber responded with an interception and a sack in the Bucs’ 16-10 victory against the Panthers. He made the position switch primarily to prolong his career (he took a 25 percent pay cut to sign a one-year, $3 million contract) but also to accommodate the needs of Bucs first-year coach Greg Schiano.
“Ronde’s been incredible,’’ Schiano said. “I mean that from a team standpoint, but I also mean it as a first-time (NFL) head coach. He’s been a huge help, a guy that I confide in and get some advice (from). He has such great experience. He’s one of the finest players to ever play the game.
“He’s played well on the field. He’s been a great role model for our younger guys. I’m just happy that he decided to come back and do it again in 2012.”
The Saints may feel differently about Barber, who will be making his 25th consecutive start against New Orleans. In fact, his first NFL start came against the Saints and coach Mike Ditka in Week 8 of the 1998 season.
Barber has split his first 24 games against New Orleans (12-12), with the Saints winning this season’s first meeting in Game 6, 35-28. In that game, Barber recorded his ninth career interception against New Orleans, his second in back-to-back games against quarterback Drew Brees dating to Game 9 last season.
“He’s such a great football player,’’ Brees said of Barber, the 66th overall pick of the 1997 draft, 30 picks ahead of brother Tiki. “There’s a reason he’s played for as many years as he’s played.
“Here’s the thing: There are packages where he comes down and he plays at linebacker level. He’s covering the running back, maybe he’s covering the tight end, maybe he’s blitzing. There are so many things he can do. He’s so versatile. He’s smart and he’s instinctive.’’
And he’s also been a royal pain in the Saints derriere over the years.
Consider: Nine of Barber’s 47 career interceptions have come against the Saints; one against quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver (Game 8,1999), six against former Virginia teammate/quarterback Aaron Brooks (3 and one TD in Game 14 in 2001, 3 in Game 12 in 2005) and two against Brees (Game 9 in 2011, Game 6 in 2012).
“I’ve got some great memories against the Saints,’’ Barber said. “It seems like whoever (wins) the first game always ends up getting it back in the second one.
“I think this year is like any other year. We’re hoping for the same result.’’
The Saints will be without five players Sunday, including two starters — right tackle Zach Strief and free safety Malcolm Jenkins. … Strief (ankle) and Jenkins (hamstring) were ruled out of the game along with CB Corey White (knee), RB Chris Ivory (hamstring) and T Charles Brown (knee). FB Jed Collins (toe) was limited in practice Friday and is questionable. … For the Bucs, DE Da’Quan Bowers (hamstring) and CB LeQuan Lewis (knee) are questionable. … Tickets returned from the Bucs’ allotment remain on sale at www.ticketmaster.com. Tickets can also be purchased by phone at (800) 745-3000.
Advocate sportswriter Sheldon Mickles contributed to this report.