Division action in the ultra-competitive NFC South gets started in Week 1 as the New Orleans Saints play host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The game is scheduled for 1:00 EST on Sunday, September 9 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Fans in local markets can watch the game on Fox.
The Saints enter this game as 9.5-point favorites. However, that line has grown substantially after New Orleans opened as 7-point home favorites. There is also an over/under of 49.5 points for this game. Click here to check out the odds for every Week 1 NFL game.
The Saints are coming off perhaps the most devastating ending to a season imaginable. They were one tackle away from reaching the NFC Championship Game, a game in which they would have been the favorites. But Marcus Williams missed the tackle on the famous Minneapolis Miracle, ending the team’s season in heartbreaking fashion.
However, Drew Brees signed a two-year deal to stay in New Orleans, so he is back and determined to lead the Saints to the Super Bowl. Perhaps more than any other team in the NFL, New Orleans begins the 2018 season in win-now mode.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers expected to be in the playoff hunt last season after narrowly missing the postseason in 2016. However, things didn’t work out as planned. A five-game losing streak in October and early November sunk the Bucs, who finished the 2017 season 5-11.
Surprisingly, Dirk Koetter kept his job after last season. But he almost certainly has to get Tampa Bay to the playoffs this season if he wants to keep his job. Of course, that task becomes a little more difficult with starting quarterback Jameis Winston set to miss the first three games of the season due to a suspension.
Despite Tampa Bay’s struggles last season, the Bucs actually closed out the season with a 31-24 win over the Saints. In fact, these two teams have split their two regular-season matchups each of the last three seasons. The home team has also won the last four games in this division rivalry, which could swing this game toward the Saints.
With Winston missing this game and the Bucs on the road, it’s tempting to swallow the points and pick the Saints. However, with the line of this game on the way up, I’m not comfortable counting on New Orleans to win by double digits. Eight of the last 10 games between these two teams have been decided by a touchdown or less. When it comes to division games, I almost always expect things to be competitive, so I’ll lean toward Tampa Bay and the points.
Honestly, starting Ryan Fitzpatrick in place of Winston isn’t the end of the world for the Bucs. He’s proven to be a competent quarterback who can get the ball to his playmakers. To be fair, I’m a little concerned about Tampa Bay’s ability to run the ball. They struggled on the ground last year, and I’m not yet sold on rookie Ronald Jones or Peyton Barber.
However, the Bucs have more than enough weapons in the passing game. Beyond Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin and tight end O.J. Howard are both potential game changers in Tampa’s offense. The Saints made several moves to fortify their secondary over the offseason, so they are deep at cornerback. But they still have a tough test ahead of them this week because it’s not just Evans and Jackson who can hurt them.
Oddly enough, I’m a little concerned about the Saints having enough playmakers. Mark Ingram is suspended for the first four games of the season, which could potentially put too much on Alvin Kamara’s plate. Rather than sharing time with Ingram, Kamara will be the main ball carrier and a target in the short passing game. That will make it a little easier for the Tampa defense to make him a focal point.
Obviously, the Bucs had their issues defensively last season. But Tampa Bay has made vast improvements to their defensive line this season. I have little doubt that they’ll have the pass rushers to bother Brees and make it difficult for him to get the ball downfield to Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. That could force the Saints to rely more on Cam Meredith, who’s coming back from a serious knee injury, and rookie receiver Tre’Quan Smith.
It’s also important to note that the Saints have traditionally struggled early in the season. Remember, New Orleans started 0-2 last season. The Saints have also lost in Week 1 the last four seasons. Those numbers don’t have a huge bearing on this matchup, but it does indicate that the Saints, for whatever reason, aren’t always at their best early in the season.
Ultimately, I have too many reasons to doubt that the Saints will be able to cover what has grown to a 9.5-point spread. Admittedly, leaning toward the Buccaneers means putting a lot of trust in the aging Fitzpatrick to have a good game against a defense that has plenty of talent. Even with that in mind, I’m still not comfortable swallowing this many points in a divisional game. I’ll take my chances with the Bucs beating the spread.