Few would have predicted that four weeks into the season, the Saints would be tied for the lead in the NFC South while Tampa Bay would be at the bottom.
Two teams heading in opposite directions meet in the Superdome on Sunday at noon when the surprising Saints entertain the slumping Buccaneers. The Saints (3-1) went 3-13 last season while the Bucs (0-3) went 11-5 to win the division and make the playoffs.
"If you would have told us at the beginning of the season, I think we would have said, ´Yeah, we´ll take 3-1,´" said quarterback Drew Brees. "I would have taken it because it´s hard, knowing we had three games on the road. I´d say we´re on the right track.
"Everybody goes through the NFL season and loses at least once, except the ´72 Dolphins. At some point we´re going to have to face a little adversity. We´re going to have to swallow a tough loss (to Carolina 21-18) and move on to the next big game, which is Sunday."
Brees has looked sharp in his first four games. He has completed 65.7 per cent of his passes and thrown for 1.063 yards. 4 TDs and 2 interceptions.
While the passing game is in sync, the rushing attack has been inconsistent. The Saints have run for 302 yards combined in two of their games. but 111 in the other two.
Deuce McAllister had 39 yards on 11 carries against the Panthers, while rookie Reggis Bush was held to 22 yards on 11 rushes and lost a fumble.
"As a team we should easily eclipse 150, 175 yards collectively as running backs," said McAllister. "We really weren´t a balanced offense...like we´ve been in the past."
The Bucs are also having problems running the ball, putting even more pressure on rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who makes his first start Sunday.
Tampa Bay. coming off its bye week, will be playing for the first time since No. 1 quarterback Chris Simms ruptured his spleen in the Bucs´ 26-24 loss to Carolina on Sept. 24. Gradkowski, a sixth-round draft choice, is being pressed itno service with Simms out for at least six weeks.
"I definitely feel like I´m ready," said Gradkowski, who complete nearly 74 per cent of his passes and had five touchdowns and three interceptions in preseason. "I know coach Jon Gruden wouldn´t throw me out there if he didn´t thnik I was ready. I´ve been preparing for this. Coach didn´t bring me in here to be a clipboard holder all my career. I´m a rookie, but I´m going to play the game."
"Any time you turn the reigns over to a rookie quarterback a lot can happen,: said Gruden. "Good and bad."
Gruden said, "I´m going to look at it optmistically. This guy can make plays. He can run. He´s smart. He´s tough. He´s a charismatic fellow. He´s a winner. I believe he´ll rise to the challenge if we rally around him."
Tampa Bay has won four of its last five games against the Saints, but loss Sunday would leave the Bucs winless iinton their fitouchdownstouchdownsrst four games for the second time in three years.
Since the NFL adepted a 12-team playoff format in 1990, only three teams --- the 1992 Chargers, the 1995 Lions and the 1008 Bills -- have ever rebounded from losing the first three games and made it to the playoffs.
Gruden thinks optimistically for improvements in the ground game, which has gained an NFL-worst 130 yards, to help his rookie quarterback. Cadillac Williams has been limited to 107 yards rushing on 42 carries after setting an NFL rookie record with 434 yards over the first three games of last season.
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