Bucs try to stay alive for playoffs vs. Saints

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — As he reaches the final stage of a memorable career, Tampa Bay safety Ronde Barber is pleased to have at

least one more late-season game with postseason implications.

If he and a Buccaneers defense that ranks last against the pass can somehow slow down Saints quarterback Drew Brees on Sunday,

Tampa Bay (6-7) might even remain on the fringe of the NFC wild card race for another week.

"One of the most frustrating things that

I've had to deal with over my career, not necessarily this year or any

other year,

just over the years (is) when you're not playing meaningful games

in December. Then it feels like you're just grinding through,"

said Barber, who has yet to commit to playing beyond this season,

his 16th. "To still have a chance is about as much as you

can ask for."

That mentality sounds familiar to the Saints

(5-8), who took precisely that approach into New York last Sunday, only

to be

throttled by the Giants, 52-27. It was a demoralizing

third-straight loss after they had clawed back to .500, at 5-5,

following

an 0-4 start.

Brees, who torched the Bucs when New Orleans took a 35-28 victory in Tampa Bay on Oct. 21, has hardly looked himself during

the recent skid, throwing nine interceptions in the three losses, which have all but mathematically eliminated New Orleans

from the postseason.

Brees has held himself accountable for what he has termed game-changing mistakes. It only looks worse that one of Brees' worst

seasons as a Saint comes after a long hold-out that ended shortly before training camp, when he received a five-year, $100

million contract extension that made him the highest paid player in the game.

Yet assistant head coach Joe Vitt is quick to come to Brees' defense, appreciating what a central role he has played in the

success the Saints have had since 2006.

"Drew knows the respect we have for him as an organization, from a players' standpoint and a coaching standpoint," Vitt said,

adding that the problem "is not Drew Brees."

"This is our football team and the only

thing that's been a shortcoming on this team has been me," Vitt said.

"I've got to

do a better job of preparing our football team. When we lose, we

lose together. We don't point fingers around here and we'll

never do that. I need to coach better. ... Everybody needs to play

better. When everybody plays better, Drew will play better

too. But, no, there's nothing I can do for him except to be there

for him."

The Saints aren't the only team in this matchup that has struggled recently. The Buccaneers fell to a third-straight loss

only, letting a very winnable game slip away in a 23-21 setback against Philadelphia last week.

"We dug ourselves a hole, there is no question, by losing (the past) three games straight, at least two of them that we were

in and had a chance to win," Barber said.

Bucs coach Greg Schiano said his team's "biggest issue is consistency right now."

"We'll shoot ourselves in the foot," he said "We'll get a holding penalty or do something that we're not trained to do and

all of a sudden we're behind the eight ball.

"We have to coach better. We have to do a better job of all the little things that allow you to win."

Odds makers expect a high-scoring game, setting an over-under of 54, which represents a league-high for Week 15.

It's easy to see why. Both teams rank in the top half of the league on offense and at, or near, the very bottom on defense.

The Buccaneers' defense ranks first against

the run, but still 29th overall because it's yielding a whopping 311.6

yards per

game through the air. That could bode ill for the Bucs against

Brees, who despite the recent losing has New Orleans' passing

offense ranked second in the NFL at nearly 300 yards per game.

Tampa Bay has had more balance on offense, with Doug Martin

rushing for a Tampa Bay rookie record 1,234 yards and quarterback

Josh Freeman surpassing 3,000 yards in the air for a third

straight season.

Although New Orleans' defense has started to

look better in the second half of the season, the unit struggled last

week and

is still giving up a league-worst 436.9 yards per game, on pace to

allow single-season record 6,990 yards, which would surpass

the 6,793 allowed by 1981 Baltimore Colts.

Technically, if the Saints won their last

three games and several teams in front of them completely fell apart,

New Orleans

could sneak into the postseason at 8-8. But Brees and Co. know

it's no longer realistic to believe they will be back in the

postseason for a fourth straight year.

Recently, the Saints have been fielding a

lot of questions about whether their playoff hopes ultimately were

derailed by the

bounty scandal that led to head coach Sean Payton's suspension for

the whole season, and which forced two defensive regulars,

Jon Vilma and Will Smith, to put forth an intensive legal effort

through the first 14 weeks of the season before their suspensions

were thrown out this past week on appeal.

The party line at Saints headquarters is

that it obviously hurts to lose a coach like Payton, among the most

respected and

progressive offensive minds in the game. But the Saints do not

want to use that as an excuse. They still had their best players

in the lineup — most of them veterans who know the system — and

they simply didn't execute consistently.

"All we can control is the next three weeks and how we want to define ourselves for the season," Brees said. "You try to block

out a lot of what's happened prior to this. I think we would all recognize we haven't played our best football, especially

down the stretch here. The only way we can make that right is by going out here these last three weeks and really putting

it together the way that we know how. We want to end the season on a high note, feeling good about ourselves, feeling good

about the future."