With a Vegas spread of 9.5 points, oddsmakers pegged Saints-Buccaneers as the game this weekend with the highest probability of being a blowout. Only it was supposed to be New Orleans dominating Tampa Bay. But on seemingly every possession Sunday, Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bucs picked apart the Saints’ defense as Tampa Bay cruised to a 48-40 victory that was never supposed to happen.
Entering Week 1, the Buccaneers were expected to be one of the worst teams in football, while the Saints—who just eight months ago were one fluke play away from the NFC championship game—looked like a Super Bowl contender. So it was shocking when Fitzpatrick—the Bucs’ backup QB who is starting as Jameis Winston serves a three-game suspension—went 21-for-28 for 417 yards and four touchdowns. Sorry, I should specify: That’s four passing touchdowns. Fitzpatrick also had 12 carries for 36 yards and another TD on the ground.
The Bucs came into the season with such little hype that it’s easy to forget that the team has one of the best groups of pass catchers in the league. They quickly reminded the Saints. On virtually every drive, the Bucs had a big play or touchdown, like these from DeSean Jackson:
These from Chris Godwin:
And this filthy Mike Evans touchdown:
Some of these look nearly identical—it’s like New Orleans’s defense didn’t learn anything throughout the course of the game. That’s particularly worrisome for the Saints, as one of the main reasons the team jumped to 11-5 in 2017 after three straight 7-9 seasons was its defense, which evolved from a bottom-of-the-league unit to an eighth-place finish in DVOA last year behind stars like pass rusher Cameron Jordan and defensive back Marshon Lattimore. If the team is sliding back into the basement on that side of the field, it will put them well behind the Eagles, Vikings, and Rams in the NFC, each of whom has one of the most complete rosters in football.
That’s not to say it’s time to hit the panic button yet. The Saints have been here before—just last year, the team started 0-2, as they had in every season since 2014. New Orleans gave up 65 points in its first two games of the season … only those games came against the Vikings and Patriots. Unless the Buccaneers make the NFC championship game, this loss won’t look nearly as forgivable in retrospect.
There were glimmers of hope in this game, though. One of the main questions facing New Orleans coming into this season was whether running back Alvin Kamara’s historic offensive efficiency would hold up, especially with Mark Ingram suspended for four games. That wasn’t a problem on Sunday.
Kamara turned 17 touches into 141 yards and three touchdowns, looking every bit like the offensive game-breaker he was last season. Drew Brees quietly put up 439 yards, showing that even at age 39 he can still sling it all over the yard. And Michael Thomas (180 receiving yards, one TD), looks like the true top wideout he evolved into last season. For all the concerns about the defense, the offense showed that it was exactly where it needed to be.
Hell, if it weren’t for two lost fumbles, the Saints probably could have eked out a win here. Fumbles are generally random, so there’s an argument that New Orleans’s loss may have come down to bad luck, as Tampa Bay had zero turnovers. But that fact only underscores the problem: If the Saints are a Super Bowl contender, they shouldn’t need fumble luck to overcome the Bucs, and they shouldn’t give up 500 yards of offense to any team.