NFC South: Mall of America Field

Wrap-up: Buccaneers 36, Vikings 17

October, 25, 2012

Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 36-17 victory against the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field on Thursday night:

What it means: This was a big step for the Bucs as they continue to build around a lot of young players with a first-year coaching staff. It showed the Bucs can go on the road and beat a team with a winning record. It showed that the Bucs are capable of protecting a lead, something they've had trouble with this year. The Bucs are 3-4 and -- for the moment -- are in sole possession of second place in the NFC South. They’re not going to catch the Atlanta Falcons, but I’ve got a hunch we’re going to see continued improvement from the Bucs in the second half of the season.

Martin’s big night: Early on, a lot of critics were pointing to the fact that rookie running back Doug Martin wasn’t making any big plays. That no longer can be said. Martin had a breakout game. He carried 29 times for 135 yards (including a 41-yard run) and a touchdown. Martin also caught three passes for 79 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown. Remember back on draft night, when coach Greg Schiano repeatedly called Martin an all-purpose back and compared him to Ray Rice? Martin certainly served all purposes against the Vikings. We’ll hold off a bit on getting too carried away with the Rice comparisons, but it’s starting to look like Schiano knew what he was talking about.

Stat of the night: Josh Freeman threw three touchdown passes against the Vikings. He now has thrown three touchdowns in three consecutive games. No other quarterback in franchise history has ever done that. Come to think of it, the Bucs never have had a guy that’s gotten firmly established as a franchise quarterback. A few more games like this and I think it will be safe to assume the Bucs will give Freeman a big contract extension in the offseason and lock him up for the long term.

Age really is just a number: Safety Ronde Barber is 37, but he still is making huge plays. He forced two fumbles against the Vikings by stripping the ball and also put some pressure on Christian Ponder with some blitzes. Barber made it sound like this would be his last season when he re-signed with the Bucs on a one-year deal in the offseason. But I’m starting to think the Bucs would be very interested in bringing Barber back for one more year -- at least.

Bowers makes debut: The Bucs activated defensive end Da'Quan Bowers off the physically unable to perform list a few hours before the game. Bowers, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon in May, was used as a situational pass-rusher. But he did record a sack on a play in which Ponder had to fall on a bad snap out of the shotgun formation.

The streak is over: The Bucs had lost nine consecutive road games dating back to last year. That streak is officially over. Coincidentally, the last road game the Bucs won was in Minnesota early last season.

What I liked: The Bucs have continued to get fullback Erik Lorig involved in the passing game. That’s a good thing because it brings diversity to the offense. Lorig got his first career touchdown catch in the first quarter. Lorig now has eight catches for 51 yards so far this season, after having only seven catches for 63 yards in the previous two seasons combined.

What I didn’t like: Left tackle Donald Penn got into an encounter that involved pushing, shoving and jawing with Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen late in the third quarter. Not sure that it’s a great idea to fire up Allen.

What’s next: The Buccaneers play at Oakland on Nov. 4.

Wrap-up: Saints 42, Vikings 20

December, 18, 2011

Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 42-20 victory against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at Mall of America Field:

What it means: The Saints improved to 11-3, marking their third straight season with at least 11 wins, a franchise record. The Saints held onto their lead in the NFC South and can control their own destiny by winning their next game. More importantly, the Saints also kept pace in the race for the No. 2 seed (San Francisco is 10-3 going into Monday night’s game against Pittsburgh) in the NFC playoffs, and the more chances they have for home playoff games, the better their shot at the Super Bowl will be.

What I liked: A lot of people have said the Saints aren’t a good road team. But for the second week in a row, they’ve gone on the road and come away with a win after some early adversity. Granted, beating the Vikings might not be as impressive as defeating the Titans last week. But once the Saints got past a few early mistakes, they dominated the game.

What I didn’t like: Sean Payton’s decision to go for an onside kick when the Saints had a 14-6 lead in the second quarter. It didn’t work and the Vikings scored a touchdown to close the lead to 14-13. It never got closer than that again, so there’s no real need to dwell on the decision to go with the onside kick. Plus, Payton sometimes has a tendency to out-think himself or be a little too aggressive. Maybe it’s a good thing he got that out of his system now, rather than in a game in which a controversial call could end up haunting him.

Another milestone: Drew Brees threw five touchdown passes. That gives him 37 for the season. His previous career high was 34, which he reached in both 2008 and 2009.

What’s next: The Saints host the Atlanta Falcons on Dec. 26 in a "Monday Night Football" game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Let’s go ahead and declare it the “Game of the Year’’ in the NFC South. If the Saints win, they will be the NFC South champion for the second time in three seasons. These teams have developed a great rivalry in recent years and the Saints won in overtime when the teams played in the Georgia Dome earlier in the season. That game involved a controversial decision by Atlanta coach Mike Smith to go for it on fourth-and-inches. The Falcons will be out for revenge, and they look like they’re a better team now than they were earlier in the season. Then again, I think the Saints also have gotten better as the season has gone on.

Wrap-up: Saints 22, Titans 17

December, 11, 2011
Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 22-17 victory against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at LP Field:

What it means: It wasn’t pretty, but the Saints got a win. At 10-3, they’re atop the NFC South. They also recorded their third straight 10-win season, something that had never happened in franchise history. The Saints also moved to 3-2 in outdoor games this season and it’s been mentioned more than a few times that the Saints are not a good outdoor team. But they beat a good team, although Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was injured and rookie Jake Locker had to step in. You could make a case the Saints showed they can win outdoors. But the fact that they didn’t win impressively probably will continue to fuel speculation the Saints could face trouble if they have to go to Green Bay or San Francisco in the postseason.

What I liked: The play of Marques Colston. He caught two fourth-quarter touchdown passes. Colston sometimes gets overlooked because the Saints have so many great offensive weapons and his statistics aren’t what they could be if he played in an offense that didn’t spread the ball around so much. But this guy deserves more credit than he gets. He might not be the best receiver in the league, but he’s in the top 10.

What I didn’t like: The Saints moved the ball early, but had to settle for field goals. That rarely happens with the Saints and you have to think this was a one-time thing.

Defense rises: I thought the New Orleans defense played well through most of last week’s victory against Detroit. The defense also stepped up in the final minutes against Tennessee. The Saints stopped the Titans on a fourth-and-1 with a little over two minutes left. Linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar also sacked Locker as time expired.

The streak lives: It took a little longer than usual, but Drew Brees ran his streak of consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass to 40. That’s second on the all-time list. Johnny Unitas (47) holds the record.

What’s next: The Saints play the Minnesota Vikings next Sunday at Mall of America Field.