TAMPA, Fla. — Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees won’t be the only compelling storyline when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints clash with first place on the line in the NFC South.
The NFL career passing leaders meet for the seventh time Sunday night, with Brady (561) and Brees (560) ranking first and second on the touchdown passes list after exchanging the lead three times in the past two weeks.
The Bucs (6-2) have won three straight, six of seven since losing to Brees in Week 1.
The three-time defending division champion Saints (5-2) have won four in a row to stay on the heels of Brady, Tampa Bay’s ever-expanding collection of offensive playmakers and a defence that has emerged as one of the best in the league.
Brees, 41, called the TD pass race “pretty cool” while stressing what’s more important is winning and regaining the division lead.
“Speaking for myself, I’m just laser focused on the job that is right in front of me, and the opportunity that we have this week,” the Saints quarterback said.
Brady, 43, also had little to say about the uniqueness of him and Brees chasing history at the same time.
Brees took over the top spot with two TD passes in an overtime win over Chicago last Sunday. Brady reclaimed the lead with a pair of scoring passes against the New York Giants on Monday night.
“We’ve both been around for quite a while. He’s a great quarterback,” said Brady, second in career yards passing behind Brees with 76,760.
“I have a lot of respect for him as a player, as a person, and we’re both closer to the end than we are to the beginning,” Brady added. “I think we both still enjoy being out there on the field with our teammates playing and competing, and it’s going to be a very competitive game Sunday night.”
The primetime matchup will also feature Antonio Brown’s debut with the Bucs.
The four-time All Pro receiver signed with Tampa Bay last week and is coming off an eight-game suspension for multiple violations of the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
He’s the latest big-name addition the Bucs have made on offence since signing Brady in free agency, joining Rob Gronkowski, LeSean McCoy and Leonard Fournette.
“I’m just excited to put my hand in the pile. There are so many great guys here,” Brown said.
“I’m just super grateful for this opportunity and … excited to fit in and do what’s best for us to win,” Brown added. “Whatever that entails.”
GETTING IT DONE
Brady is off to a terrific start, throwing for 2,198 yards, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions. He has tossed 17 TD passes vs. one interception over the past six games.
Brees is coming off a 280-yard, two-touchdown, zero-interceptions game against Chicago. In one fewer game than Brady, he has thrown for 1,898 yards, 13 TDs and three interceptions.
Bucs coach Bruce Arians was asked what his defence has to do disrupt Brees on Sunday night.
“Knock him down a few times. That always helps,” Arians said. “None of them – especially the older guys – like getting knocked down. We’ve got to pressure him, get him off his spot and have really good, tight coverage.”
BRACING FOR BROWN
Saints coach Sean Payton is well aware of how difficult Brown can be on a defence. When the Saints edged out the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-28 in the Superdome in 2018, Brown was arguably the best player on the field. The Saints couldn’t stay with him, and he finished with 14 catches for 185 yards and two TDs.
Payton said one of the big challenges Brown presents is his explosiveness. So, limiting his catches most of the game could be undone by “one big play at the wrong time.”
Payton added that “it doesn’t require 11 catches” for Brown to have a significant effect on a game.
While both teams have viable running games, both defences are stout against the run. The Buccaneers rank first in the NFL in rushing defence, allowing 70.4 yards per game. The Saints rank third, allowing 90.6 yards per game.
“There’s 32 teams that will say, ‘We want to stop the run,’ right? That’s just a fact, everyone is going to say that,” Payton said. “And yet, they’ve been able to back that up year after year.”
Meanwhile, the Saints could be short-handed in the interior of their defensive line. Starting defensive tackle Shedone Rankins, a 2015 first-round draft choice, hurt his knee last Sunday in Chicago. It’s not yet clear when he’ll be ready to return.
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel contributed to this report.
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Fred Goodall, The Associated Press