The margin for error is gone in Tampa.
A disheartening last second loss to moribund Philadelphia has put the Buccaneers' playoff hopes on life support as they get ready to visit the Big Easy to take on the slumping New Orleans Saints.
Tampa Bay will have to win out from here on out and get plenty of help elsewhere starting Sunday. Eagles rookie quarterback Nick Foles dealt the Bucs a serious blow when he found Jeremy Maclin for a 1-yard touchdown as time expired to lift Philly past the Buccaneers, 23-21, in Week 14.
It was the third straight loss by a combined 11 points for the hard-luck Bucs as they fell further behind in the NFC playoff race despite rookie Doug Martin's 128 rushing yards and a touchdown.
"We have to find a way to make more plays and score more points," said Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman. "That is what the game is all about, winning and losing. Any time you lose a close one it is going to be pretty rough."
The Bucs are two games behind wild-card leaders Seattle and Chicago with three to play and must jump over four other teams as well.
"Right now, we're playing for a lot," Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano said.
The Saints haven't been officially eliminated from the postseason either but they can forget about any miracles after getting destroyed, 52-27, by the New York Giants last Sunday
New Orleans gave up a franchise-worst 287 yards on six kickoff returns, including a 97- yard touchdown in the first quarter as it fell to 5-7 on the season.
Drew Brees passed for 354 yards and a touchdown while completing 26-of-43 attempts in the setback but was intercepted twice as the Saints suffered their third straight loss.
Darren Sproles recorded both a rushing and receiving touchdown for New Orleans, with Joseph Morgan accumulating 106 yards on only two catches.
"That was an embarrassment today, what took place on the football field," said a frustrated Saints coach Joe Vitt. "It starts with me and that's where the blame should go. I didn't do a good enough job of getting this football team prepared."
New Orleans has won two straight over Tampa Bay and leads the all-time series 24-17, including a 35-28 win in Central Florida on Oct. 21 behind Brees' four touchdown Passes. Freeman threw for a career-best 420 yards and three TDs in that one.
The Saints will be looking for their first series sweep against the Buccaneers since the 2006 season, and their third since the NFC South was established in 2002.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
About the only good news for New Orleans came off the field when former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced his ruling in the Saints bounty case and vacated all player discipline previously issued by current commissioner Roger Goodell.
Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita were all suspended by Goodell in May for their roles in the bounty program from 2009-2011. Vilma had been suspended for the entire 2012 season, while Hargrove was originally given an eight-game penalty. Smith was banned for four games and Fujita was slapped with a three-game suspension.
Each of the four players were permitted to play while the appeals process continued.
Vilma was hurt to begin the season and rejoined the Saints in late October, while Smith has played all 13 games for New Orleans. Fujita played four games for Cleveland this season before a neck problem forced him to injured reserve, while Hargrove remains a free agent who has not played this year.
"We're happy that our players have been vindicated, (and) their suspensions vacated," Vitt said.
On the field Brees has struggled mightily in his last two games, throwing just one touchdown versus seven interceptions and compiling an uncharacteristic 53.8 passer rating.
"Each of these games is so important, still so important, because we have a lot of prideful guys," Brees said. "We're not about to shut it down and feel like the season is lost. There's still a lot that can be done."
As bad as Brees has been, however, the bigger problem in NOLA has been the defense, which has given up 436.9 yards per game, something that doesn't bode well against a balanced, high-powered offense like Tampa Bay.
Martin is second in the NFL with 1,612 scrimmage yards and tied for the NFC lead with 10 TDs.
"This (running) back (Doug Martin) is doing a heck of a job right now," Vitt said. "I don't know that I've seen a back in the league this year in the National Football League make more yards after contact than he does."
Freeman, meanwhile, has thrown for 1,259 yards and eights TDs with no picks in his last four games versus the Saints, while Vincent Jackson had seven catches for a career-high 216 yards the last time the two teams met.
"The passing game is a little bit different," Vitt said. "There's lots of double moves. This is an offense that is eighth in the league right now in quick strikes. We know what Vincent Jackson can do. He's having a heck of a year. Right now he's third in the league of catches in 20-plus yards and he's leading the league where every time he touches the ball it's a 20-yard completion."
Since 2002, 14 of the 21 games between these two clubs have been decided by a touchdown or less, so this one figures to be close.
New Orleans needs a win this week coupled with losses by Chicago, Seattle and Washington just to stay alive for another week. A tight victory is likely but you can forget the rest.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 23, Bucs 20