(SportsNetwork.com) - A prize of sorts will be on the line in Tampa this weekend.
One more loss against visiting New Orleans and the moribund Buccaneers will secure the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, not exactly the Lombardi Trophy but a consolation prize of sorts for the disastrous debut season of Lovie Smith.
The Bucs lost another in Week 16 as the Green Bay clinched a spot in the playoffs for the sixth straight season on the backs of its defense, limiting Tampa Bay to 109 yards of offense in a 20-3 win.
The Bucs managed only 16 total rushing yards, led by Doug Martin with 17. His longest run of the day was four yards.
Quarterback Josh McCown completed just 12-of-26 passes for 147 yards. Vincent Jackson caught three passes for 60 yards, and Mike Evans added 49 yards on four receptions.
"Defensively, we hung in there," said Smith. "It's hard to win games when you put up that kind of offensive production, which is very little."
The Saints season also went up in smoke last weekend when Matt Ryan threw for 322 yards and the Atlanta Falcons' much-maligned defense rose to the occasion in a season-saving 30-14 victory over New Orleans that dropped the erratic Saints out of the NFC South race.
Entering this critical divisional showdown ranked at the bottom of the NFL in total defense, pass defense and sacks, the Falcons put forth their best effort of the year on that side of the ball to set up a winner-take-all matchup with Carolina for the NFC South crown next Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
The Saints are at the odd man out as Drew Brees finished 30-of-47 for 313 yards and a touchdown to Jimmy Graham, but was intercepted twice in the loss, the fifth straight at the Superdome for New Orleans.
"You have to be able to convert third downs. You have to go make some plays," said Brees. "I know we missed some big-play opportunities in the passing game. You just have to sustain drives. We just haven't been able to do that at home those two times."
Brees' second pick all but sealed the Saints' fate. After New Orleans got the ball back at its own 10-yard line down just 20-14 with 2:40 left, Falcons cornerback Robert McClain jumped a route and snared the quarterback's short pass intended for Nick Toon to place Atlanta deep in enemy territory. The turnover led to Matt Bryant's third field goal of the day, a 32-yarder with 1:56 to go.
"It was a big-time play," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith of the interception. "(McClain) got a great jump on the ball. Robert's continued to improve all season long. I know that some people had talked about him not making plays. He made the play when we needed the play made."
The Saints lead their all-time series with Tampa Bay by a 28-17 margin and have won six straight, including a 37-31 overtime win in NOLA back in October when Khiry Robinson ran for 89 yards, including the game-winning 18-yard TD in the extra frame. Brees passed for 371 yards and two TDs in that one.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Tampa Bay is already assured of a top-two pick in the 2015 draft, and a loss here would secure the No. 1 choice and the ability to chose between Oregon Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota and Florida State standout Jameis Winston.
A Bucs win coupled with a Tennessee loss would send the top pick to Nashville and the Titans but Smith isn't thinking about his rebuilding project just yet.
"I've kind of answered that question a few times," the veteran coach said. "I think we're going to end up in good position to get some good players. So to me, that can't even come into the equation."
Mariota or Winston would certainly up the talent level on what has been the 31st-ranked offense in football at 292.8 yards per game, the major factor in Tampa Bay's dismal season which has them on the brink of finishing off a winless home schedule for the first time since their inaugural 1976 season when they finished 0-7 in Central Florida.
"We do want to finish it up the right way," Smith said. "I think all our guys realize that."
The Saints are looking to close things out on a positive note and clean up what has been a season-long problem, turning the football over. New Orleans has been its usual self as far as moving the football, averaging 416.3 yards per game, tops in the NFL. The issue has been the turnovers and the Saints come into Week 17 minus-11 ratio, 30th in the NFL, a surprising development with the veteran Brees at the controls.
"You really just keep yourself from having an opportunity to win a game," said NOLA coach Sean Payton. "That's something that I obviously have to look closely at."
The other major problem for the Saints has been a defense that is allowing 390.9 yards per game, 31st in a 32-team league, and veteran defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is on the hot seat.
"You can't just sit around and feel sorry for yourself all day," linebacker Parys Haralson said. "The season didn't go the way you wanted to, but you've got this last game right here to go and still get to do what you love."
Despite the Saints' down season Brees has actually still been playing at a fairly high level and it's hard to imagine this Bucs offense being able to keep pace with him for a full 60 minutes.
"We'll have our best guys out there and preparing and doing everything we would normally do if we were playing for a playoff spot," said Payton. "It won't be a bit different."
Sports Network predicted outcome: Saints 24, Buccaneers 13