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."