The New Orleans Saints failed to take advantage of what seemed like a golden opportunity to increase their division lead last weekend.
Following a week off, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are feeling all the more optimistic about making a run at them - especially with LeGarrette Blount expected to return.
Hoping to regroup from one of the more stunning defeats of the NFL season, the Saints try to avenge last month's loss to the Buccaneers on Sunday at the Superdome in a matchup which has control of the NFC South at stake.
Coming off a 62-7 rout of Indianapolis on Oct. 23, New Orleans (5-3) entered last Sunday as a huge favorite over previously winless St. Louis but emerged with a shocking 31-21 loss. The Saints were never in the game, trailing 24-0 well into the third quarter against a Rams team which hadn't scored more than 16 points in any previous week.
"It kind of felt like a nightmare," left tackle Jermon Bushrod said. "We've got to refocus and put this tough one behind us ... because the more we harp on (last Sunday), the more it's going to eat us up."
New Orleans saw its South lead drop to one-half game over Tampa Bay (4-3) and Atlanta, both of which were idle last week. The Bucs could be alone atop the division with a win Sunday or will share first place if Atlanta also wins, but they've already beaten the Falcons.
"It's all clumped up in the NFC South. Perfect suiting for us. Perfect suiting for winning this division like we talked about at the beginning of the year," coach Raheem Morris said. "Somebody has to do it, why not us?
"We do feel like we're in a good position. We haven't played our best football clearly, and that's a good thing."
Their hopes of surpassing the Saints surely would be helped if Blount is back after missing two games with a sprained MCL in his left knee. The bruising second-year running back has rushed for 328 yards and three touchdowns in five games.
"LeGarrette brings a lot to the table, he's one of those guys that can come in there and really (allows us to) be what we want to be on offense," Morris said.
"He's obviously one of our guys that we're gonna depend on to make big plays ... we're expecting big things out of LeGarrette Blount."
His return would come at an opportune time after Earnest Graham, who started the last two games, suffered a season-ending torn Achilles' tendon in a 24-18 loss to Chicago in London on Oct. 23.
Blount could post impressive numbers against a New Orleans run defense ranked 24th in the NFL with an average of 124.1 yards allowed. Graham rushed for 109 yards in a 26-20 home win over New Orleans on Oct. 16.
Drew Brees had a season-worst three interceptions in that defeat, though he did throw for 383 yards. The Bucs failed to sack Brees in that game, but he was sacked a career worst-tying six times last Sunday and threw two more interceptions.
"The truth hurts. We've lost two out of three and we've lost them in similar ways," said Brees, whose streak of 35 consecutive games with a TD pass is one shy of tying Brett Favre for second-longest in NFL history.
"We've turned the ball over, which will get you beat. We haven't been as balanced as we should be on offense, so that's a matter of execution."
The Saints compiled just 70 and 56 rushing yards, respectively, against the Buccaneers and Rams - their two lowest totals of the season. While they've won 23 consecutive games when rushing for at least 125 yards - the longest active streak in the NFL - they are 0-3 when recording less than 100 this season.
First-round pick Mark Ingram, who leads the team with 329 rushing yards and three TDs, was held out against the Rams with a right heel injury. He didn't practice Wednesday and is unlikely to be available this week.
The Bucs have taken three of four from the Saints as Josh Freeman has thrown for five touchdowns and been picked off just twice. He threw for a season-high 303 yards and two TDs without an interception in last month's matchup, but Freeman is looking to bounce back after having a season-worst four INTs against the Bears.
"This is crunch time football, no matter what your team situation is," Freeman said. "This week for a lot of teams it's make or break. You've got to start looking at games like that.
"It's no longer the beginning of the season. You're starting to get into the home stretch. We've just got to find a way to play well."
Tampa Bay has won its last two visits to the Superdome. New Orleans is 16-3 at home against the rest of the NFL since the start of 2009 - including playoffs - and 3-0 this year while averaging 44.0 points.