As far as many of the New Orleans Saints are concerned, it’s way too early to be thinking about having a two-game advantage in the NFC South race with 10 regular-season games left.
Even after spending most of the 2010 season trying to catch the pacesetting Atlanta Falcons in a futile bid for a second straight division title, the Saints know it’s important.
But at the same time, they can’t afford to get too far ahead of themselves with that many games remaining.
So when the Saints (4-1) go against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-2) at 3:15 p.m. Sunday in Raymond James Stadium, they’ll be more concerned with continuing their recent good play.
To the Saints, that means winning a fifth consecutive game and collecting a third road win in as many weeks after defeating the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers. Only once, on their way to the franchise’s first playoff berth in 1987, have the Saints won back-to-back-to-back road games.
“Sure, it’s relevant,” quarterback Drew Brees said of possibly having a two-game cushion by the end of the day. “We don’t talk about that. We talk about it being a divisional opponent on the road.”
A year ago, the Saints won each of their three NFC South road games and still came up short in the standings. That’s one of the reasons they want to build on last week’s come-from-behind 30-27 victory over the Panthers.
“For a lot of reasons, we want to win this game,” said Brees, who will be going for an NFL-record fourth consecutive 350-yard passing game. “But when you look at how it affects our standing in the division, we never get too comfortable because you can get up ? and you can get knocked right down to size. We understand the importance of this game.”
Playing at a high level might be even more of a focus for the Saints this week when you consider the Bucs will likely still be smarting from a 48-3 beating by the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday on the West Coast.
Saints coach Sean Payton and his coaches have taken the time to make sure their team doesn’t get overconfident going into what is still a big game.
“When something like that happens, generally there are turnovers and there’s a score not involving an offense,” he said of the 49ers’ romp. “It happens in our league. If you’re in it long enough, playing or coaching, you just hope you’re on the better end of some of those.
“We all end up on either end at some point in our careers,” Payton said. “It was just one of those games. But certainly the turnovers, the field position, a lot of the things that keep you from winning a game are the things that stood out.”
The 49ers returned a Josh Freeman interception for one touchdown and the defense set their offense up for touchdown drives of 50 and 36 yards as the game got away from the Bucs, who had won three games in a row before getting steamrolled.
“It’s always lessons learned,” Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. “For us, it’s details, information, correction, being together and all doing the same thing. We’re not a finished product by any means. The thing about (the loss) is it gives me a chance to teach great lessons. There are lessons learned when you go out and get your face beaten in.”
Saints defensive end Turk McBride said the fact that it’s a division game will make the Bucs even hungrier to make up for last week’s loss.
“It’s a division game, so that puts a lot more emphasis on it,” he said. “They’re definitely going to be playing with a chip on their shoulder.”
While it’s a division game, Morris said it doesn’t necessarily make last week’s debacle easier to come back from.
“I wouldn’t say it helps to play the Saints any time, but to certainly get out there and play,” he said. “Certainly it’s a great challenge and a great team to play based on how they do and always prepare. It’s great for us to just get out there again.”
Perhaps, but they probably won’t do it with 250-pound running back LeGarrette Blount. The team’s leading rusher with 328 yards and three TDs, the bullish back has a knee problem and was listed as doubtful Friday after missing practice all week.
The Bucs will definitely be without defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who has an ankle injury, and several of their linebackers are also banged up.
One thing the Bucs have going for them, however, is they were extremely good last season at bouncing back from a loss. They followed five of their six losses with a win and only once did they have back-to-back setbacks.
“It’s a thing where each game is its own separate game,” said the 6-foot-6, 248-pound Freeman, a dual threat with 1,156 passing yards and 106 rushing yards. “It’s not really a deal where we lose a game and then we’re in a funk. It’s a deal where next week you start over with a clean slate of preparation.
“It doesn’t matter if you won the previous game or lost the previous game, you have to get prepared. You have a new team coming in and it’ll be a new challenge. That’s the approach we take; it’s kind of our standard operating procedure.”