Saints and Bucs battle for NFC title game berth

The New Orleans Saints are the only team to have beaten Tom Brady twice in the same season.

They will try to beat Brady a third time this season when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in an NFC divisional round game on Sunday.

Drew Brees and the Saints ruined Brady’s debut with the Buccaneers after 20 seasons in New England when they prevailed 34-23 in the season opener in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

They handed Brady the worst loss of his career when they completed the season-series sweep with a 38-3 rout in Tampa on Nov. 8.

Now the stakes are higher, as the winner will earn a trip to the NFC Championship on Jan. 24.

“When the playoffs come and you’re playing a division opponent like this,” Saints coach Sean Payton said, “it’s a whole new season. It’s entirely different.”

Much of the attention leading up to the game will be on Brees and Brady, the two most productive passers in NFL history. This will be the last time they face each other, if Brees retires after this season.

Brady is 43 years old and Brees turns 42 on Friday.

Brees’ team has won five of the eight career match-ups, and this will be the first time the two have met in the playoffs.

“I envisioned this game happening (when Brady signed with the Bucs last offseason),” Brees said. “Tom and I have a friendship and mutual respect. We were texting back and forth Monday, chuckling at this whole scenario.”

The Saints defense was perhaps the most important factor in winning the first two games. They intercepted Brady twice in the first meeting, including one that Janoris Jenkins returned for a touchdown, and they intercepted him three times in the second meeting.

Brees had six touchdowns and no interceptions in the first two meetings.

For the season, Brady has passed for 4,633 yards, 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He has just seven interceptions against teams other than New Orleans.

“I think we’ve just been going through growing pains throughout the season,” Tampa Bay wide receiver Chris Godwin said, “which is what happens when you have a new quarterback. It takes some time to build that chemistry and I think over the last couple of weeks we’ve done better at that.”

Since the second loss to the Saints, the Bucs have averaged 34 points per game.

“We’re doing different things that we were doing back then, especially in the opener,” Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said. “It’s just a matter of doing what you do and doing it better than they do (what they do).”

Brady threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-23 wild-card win last week at Washington. That was the Bucs’ first playoff win since they won the Super Bowl after the 2002 season.

Running back Ronald Jones, who didn’t play last week, missed practice Wednesday because of quad and finger injuries.

Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who has three of the Saints’ six sacks of Brady this season, missed a 21-9 home victory against Chicago last week because of a neck injury, but he returned to practice on a limited basis Wednesday.

“A lot of things change in a season,” Arians said. “It comes down to one-on-one battles of guys who know each other. Who’s going to make the game-changing plays in this game?”

The Saints, who are trying to reach the NFC Championship game for the second time in three seasons, have won the last five meetings.

“When we play each other (there) is a lot of emotion, a lot of physicality,” Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans said. “As players we love it. We love this rivalry. I know the fans love it. I would say it is our biggest rivalry.”

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