Saints (5-3-0) vs. Buccaneers (4-3-0) Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Sunday, Nov. 5, 12 pm C.D.T. (Fox)

The 5-3 Saints face a tough battle at home in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against the 4-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers for sole possession of the NFC South halfway through the 2011 season.

The big question going into this week's home game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is: Which Saints team will show up Sunday? 

The Saints' listless performance against the winless Rams left both NFL analysts and Da Who Dat Nation wondering if the two teams didn't swap uniforms in the locker room before kickoff or if the Saints "juggernaut" Offense missed their flight to St. Louis.  The NFL's top-scoring team was shut-out until 2:58 left in the 3rd Quarter when LB Jonathan Vilma recovered a fumble for a two-yard TD run after FS Malcolm Jenkins sacked A.J. Feeley.  Even NFL passing leader Drew Brees stunk by OUR standards);  he was sacked six times and threw two interceptions for a season-low 269 yards. (compared to 326.8 YPG, 1st in the NFL)  Overall, the Saints' Offense totaled 283 net yards compared to 444.1 YPG (2.)  The Saints rushed for a season-low of 56 yards, less than half their season average of 117.4 (11.)

Last time the Bucs and Saints met, the Bucs' Defense held the Saints to only 70 rushing yards, their 2nd lowest of the season. The Rams not only exposed serious weaknesses on the Saints Offensive Line, pass protection, and run blocking.  The Saints' Defense has been plagued by missed tackles and blitz-happy schemes that have left the field wide open for opponents to gouge the Saints on big plays for big yardage.  RB Steven Jackson ran for 159 yards alone against the Saints' D that have held opponents to an average of 124.1 rushing this season (24.)  Not to be left out of the collapse, the usually reliable Special Teams failed in spectacular style as well.  A blocked punt by Thomas Morestead set up a three-yard TD by Steven Jackson on top of a missed 49-yard field goal by John Kasay.

No doubt, Bucs' Head Coach Raheem was delighted to watch film of the Rams' debacle.  Like Coach Payton was replaying the Bucs' 48-3 thrashing by the 49ers.

After the Rams' game Saints' Head Coach Sean Payton understated, “We need to bounce back and have our best week of preparation for this Tampa Bay team.”  Duh!

No doubt the Saints will be looking to make a statement after their embarrassing upset against the Rams. They're also looking to avenge their 20-26 loss to the Bucs Oct. 16 as well as get a little "payback" after Saints Head Coach Sean Payton suffered a broken tibia and torn MCL in a sideline collision when Buc defenders pushed TE Jimmy Graham into him.  Coach Payton's since been sidelined...in the press box due to League rules barring injured team personnel who can't get out of the way from standing on the sidelines during games. Payton underwent surgery Oct. 18 for his injuries and has since delegated playcalling to Offensive Coordinator Pete Carmichael.

That may explain why the Saints and Bucs have already gotten into a scrap this week before game time.  Saints Head Coach Sean Payton called League offices to complain that QB Josh Freeman's name didn't appear on the Bucs' injury report after he appeared on NFL Network's "Around the League" Wednesday wearing a brace on his throwing hand. Freeman injured his hand two weeks ago against the Bears in London.

"Listen, I think when your quarterback's on NFL Network with a splint on his thumb, normally he's on the injury report," Coach Payton told The Times-Picayune. "At least take the splint off before you go on NFL Network, right?"

The NFL contacted the Bucs Wednesday "strongly suggesting" they put Freeman on the injury report.

"Ask the Saints, I guess they reported it, you can ask those guys," Bucs coach Raheem Morris told The St. Petersburg Times. "That's why we reported it, because the league asked us to. He sprained it in the Chicago game, came in and practiced during the bye week, and didn't miss anything this week."

Just another beautiful day in the NFC South, where pushing and shoving is commonplace during games, refs rain Unsportsmanlike Conduct flags on the field, and trash-talking Tweets makes pre- and post-game headlines.

The Saints lead the Bucs 22-17 in their series which has grown into a bitter rivalry for Gulf Coast bragging rights since the creation of the NFC South after realignment in 2002. Since then, the Bucs lead the Saints 10-9 in match-ups.  Thirteen of those contests have been decided by a touchdown or less. The Bucs have 3 of last 4 meetings.

Sunday's game will boil down to which passer has the ball at the end of the game. Period.

Bucs' QB Josh Freeman has been stellar in his last two consecutive wins against the Saints, completing 44/67 (65.7% Comp) for 558 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs for a 111.4 QBR. Both Freeman and Brees have been spotty at times this season--they tie for 2nd in NFL with 10 INTs behind Phillip Rivers.  In their last game, Freeman threw 4 INTs against Chicago at London's Wembley Stadium.   Freeman's also been criticized for failing to connect with 2nd year WR Mike Williams much this season.  So far this season, the 3rd-year signal-caller has completed 166/270 (61,5%) for 1,723 yards and 7 TDs.

Brees has thrown for more yardage than any other passer in the NFL this season (2,746 yards).  Good thing he can--the Saints have trailed opponents at the Half four times this season.   He's 242/343 (70.6%) this year.  Brees has 20-plus completions in an NFL-record-setting 28 straight games and thrown for TDs in 35 consecutive games.  One more against the Bucs and he'll tie Brett Favre for the 2nd-longest TD streak in NFL history.

Tampa gets RB LeGarrette Blount back after missing him the last two games with a knee injury.  The NFL's leading Rookie RB last season participated fully in practice this week and is probable.  No doubt, the Bucs will aim Blount at the sketchy Saints' rushing D that allowed two TDs and 159 yards from Rams RB Steven Jackson last week.  RB Mark Ingram is out Sunday, still plagued by a bruised heel he suffered against the Colts Oct. 23.

Bucs' DT Gerald McCoy also returns after being out the last two games with an ankle injury.  The Saints have struggled to protect Brees this season, allowing 19 sacks so far.   Brees has taken snaps from four different Centers so far this year; he'll be under 2nd-year man Brian De La Puente in just his 5th start.  The Saints hope to shore up their Offensive Line with the return of RT Zach Strief Sunday who's coming back after a sprained right knee in the 3rd preseason game against the Titans. LB Jonathan Vilma didn't practice this week with a knee injury that's plagued him all season.  He's Questionable for Sunday.

The Saints have their eye on Bucs' S Tanard Jackson whose had INTs in his last two games after coming off a year-long suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.  Saint Offensive Coordinator Pete Carmichael said Friday, “We respect him. He’s a great ballplayer. He’s physical and so we were expecting his best for that game.”

Prediction: Saints play their best when their dissed the most.  They've gotten no love and no respect from around the League this week for good reason. Look for the Black and Gold to re-assert their NFL presence with playoff-bound authority: Saints 31 Bucs 14. 

Week 8 Recap: Saints lost to Rams 31-21; Bucs had a Bye week

Offense Rankings

Saints: Overall 2; Pass #1; Rush #11

Bucs: Overall #15; Pass #12; Rush #23

Defense Rankings

Saints: Overall #15; Pass #11; Rush #24

Bucs: Overall #29; Pass #26; Rush #23