The New Orleans Saints showed fans this past Sunday that the team indeed still has fight in them. That fight shows they still are buying what head coach Sean Payton is selling, the same day yet another story about his future surfaced. This one about the teams possibly being open to entertaining trade offers for him next season.

Carolina won the game by finding a way to finish and taking advantage of the problems that have plagued the 2015 Saints this season. Penalties (11 for 104), turnovers (1), and the inability to stop the offense (497 yards with 33 first downs) were the reason the Saints lost yet again.

Still the fact the Saints had the ball with a chance to tie the game before time expired gives us a reason for hope. We also saw some of the players that will be depended on to rebuild this franchise into a contender play well.

Rookie LB Stephone Anthony accounted for eight points by himself with a fumble-six and a blocked extra points return for scores. Fellow rookie LB Hau’oli Kikaha had a seven tackle game. On offense, WR Brandon Coleman had four receptions for 73 yards and a touchdown. Brandin Cooks 104 yards on six grabs and a touchdown.

Rookie lineman Andrus Peat looked good in his second start at guard, enough so that head coach Sean Payton said the plan is still to use him at tackle but that guard could be an option in the future.

HOW THE SOUTH IS WON

Carolina          12-0    vs Falcons              -8.5

Tampa Bay     6-6      vs New Orleans     +3.5

Atlanta            6-6      @ Carolina              +8.5

New Orleans   4-8     @ Tampa Bay         -3.5

STORYLINES

The Storyline is simple this week and it’s one that seemingly the entire locker room is behind and that’s to finish the final quarter of the season strong. Teams normally break the season into quarters and for the Saints this is the final set of four games. A clean sweep would make the team 8-8.

Inside the locker room this week any player asked about where or what the focus of the team is spoke about the desire to finish strong. Players spoke of a clean sweep as in winning the remaining four games.

Would it change your view of how you see or feel about this team moving forward? It was a question I posed on my weekly talk show and surprisingly over 72% at the time of writing this felt that it would NOT change their feelings about this team.

That was surprising to me and also told me just how disappointed and at a loss fans are about the future of the Saints.

No doubt you look at the 2015 Saints and there isn’t much on the surface to reassure you that good times are around the corner much less a quick fix away. The Saints are NOT a player or two away, nor a FA signing, and need a few more rookies via the draft to help and not to mention there are huge questions at quarterback and head coach.

That all said the Saints do have some building blocks and done correctly can be pieces that turn this thing around.  Super Bowl 50 will not feature the Saints that is for sure but I absolutely feel that a strong finish can have an effect on next season.

Who are the building blocks? Which of these young players steps up and shows that they can be eventual leaders? I loved how WR Willie Snead this week spoke about winning all four games and that if there were some that didn’t feel like that was a key or main focus “we’ll get them there.” S Kenny Vaccaro seems to finally be coming around to be a vocal leader as he for two straight weeks has verbalized that a change in culture defensively is needed. That culture change being mental and physical and there need to be a demand for unselfish play. DE Cam Jordan spoke about how he’s learning to be a captain and having such a young defensive line, he’s learned that picking up guys mentally and keeping them focused after wins is as key as after losses.

The Saints have at Tampa, host the Lions, Jags and finish at Atlanta. 4-0 or 3-1 to mean would should this team has heart, and that could be enough for Sean Payton to stay around or convince ownership he still is the right man for the job of rebuilding and getting back to post season contention. Finishing below .500 or worse picking up just one or no wins could make things worse and force decisions to be made on emotion.

THE ENEMY

Tampa Bay is feeling pretty good about itself. The Bucs have fired the cannons in celebration of a win four out of the last six games. Two big reasons are the play of rookie quarterback Jameis Winston and the Bucs defense.

Winston engineered a game winning drive a week ago at home against Atlanta, tossing a game winning TD pass to wide receiver Mike Evans with 1:39 to play in the game. It’s Winston’s third game-wining drive in six weeks. The rookie is also being helped by the Bucs running game, as they are second in the NFL with 1,133 yards.

The defense has also stepped it up after they allowed an average of 28.9 points in the first eight games and in the three of the last four games, all Bucs wins, the defense is now just allowing 16.8 points a game.

A win Sunday over the Saints would put Tampa over .500 for the first time since November 2012.

BY THE NUMBERS

The Saints offense is ranked 9th in points at 24.9 a game getting there averaging 395.6 (4th) yards a game via 301.2 (2nd) in the air and just 94.4 (25th) yards on the ground. Tampa’s offense is averaging 22.6 (18th) points a game by gaining 369.9 (9th) yards on average getting there by averaging 226.6 (24th) yards through the air and 143.3 (2nd) on the ground.

Defensively the Saints are giving up 31.7 (32nd) points a game while allowing 425.2 yards (32nd). Teams are passing for 287.3 (31st) yards and rushing for 137.8 (32nd) against the Saints. The Bucs are giving up 24.8 (23rd) points a game while allowing 337.2 (9th) yards.  Teams are passing for 242.5 (17th) yards and rushing for 94.7 (7th) against the Bucs.

PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO HAVE A GOOD GAME ON OFFENSE

RB C.J. Spiller. Hey last week Spiller had 1 reception and no carries! How about that for a player given a deal that pays him $4.5 million a year? Okay look I don’t get why Spiller hasn’t had a bigger role but with Ingram’s season done thanks to rotator cuff surgery, you would assume Spiller is in line to be more involved this week. Hey after all head coach Sean Payton said as much this week. We’ll see. I feel he can help in both the run and passing game.

PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO HAVE A GOOD GAME ON DEFENSE

LB Stephone Anthony. Anthony had 10 tackles last week and 8 points. He’s been fantastic especially when you consider he is a rookie. Anthony this week will have to make sure he helps defend the 2nd best run game in the league, keep an eye on QB Jameis Winson and try to limit the middle of the field attack Tampa used on the Saints back in week 2.

X FACTORS

SS Kenny Vaccaro. Vaccaro has been very verbal and open about what he wants to see on defense, the style of play and the manner in which it’s played. Last week, he had 9 tackles, 6 solo and recovered a fumble. Vaccaro I’ve always felt can be a tone setter on this defense and seems to be coming around to accepting that role.

HOW I SEE IT

The Saints put up a fight last Sunday but the problem was that they still can’t overcome mistakes. Tampa Bay is playing very confidently and what’s worse for the Saints they are a team that believes they have a shot to win until the end and at 6-6 can smell the post season.

Tampa is entering the game with some injuries on defense, the Saints will be without RB Mark Ingram the rest of the season a key players in the attempted run game (see what I did there) and in pass protection. I could see this being a shootout and you know why not, give me the Saints to win it 31-27.

***Listen to the Saints and Bucs here on 97.3 The Dawg as we are your official home for New Orleans Saints football in Acadiana. Pre-game Sunday begins at 10am with kick-off at noon.***