Paths of surprising Saints, sagging Bucs clash in Superdome

- The New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are both defying expectations, albeit in markedly different ways.

Their divergent paths cross in a pivotal NFC South Division matchup on Sunday, with the Saints (5-2) aiming to consolidate their surprising hold on first place, and the Bucs (2-5) desperate to prevent their season from looking lost at the halfway point.

"We've been beating ourselves too often and somebody said a long time ago, more games in the NFL are lost than won, so it starts with not beating ourselves," said Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter, whose team was widely expected to be a playoff contender after narrowly missing the postseason last season.

The Bucs have turned the ball over 12 times - tied for eighth most in the NFL. Tampa Bay has thrown eight interceptions - six by battered starting quarterback Jameis Winston - and has lost four fumbles.

"We have to win the turnover margin and we have to out-execute our opponent," Keotter said. "We've played well in spurts, but we just haven't been consistent enough and the teams that have been beating us have beat us because they played better."

While Saints quarterback Drew Brees had done a lot of winning in his 17-year career, he's riding his first five-game winning streak since 2013, which is also the previous time the Saints made the playoffs.

The previous six-game winning streak came in 2011, when the Saints fielded the league's most potent offense.

This year's Saints offense doesn't look quite as dynamic as the '11 edition, which set an NFL record with 7,474 yards.

It has looked more like the more balanced attack New Orleans had in 2009, which was good enough to propel the Saints to their only Super Bowl. But Brees contends the Saints still have plenty of potential to fulfil.

"We're doing a lot of good things, but man just really scratching the surface in some areas," Brees said. "I feel like a lot of things can really bump us to the next level I think on both sides of the ball and yet we're still finding ways to win games and we're doing enough things well.

"That's encouraging, but you also realize the games are only getting tougher and more important and more at stake and we've got to continue to fine tune and get better."

Here are some other things to know about the Buccaneers and Saints:

MIXED FEELINGS: The Bucs have the NFL's second-most productive passing attack in the NFL and are fourth in total offense, yet they're 18th in scoring at 21 per game and off to a 2-5 start.

The team has totaled 2,636 yards this season, most in franchise history through seven games. Part of that can be attributed to playing from behind much of time.

"With the statistics we have on offense, you can't even imagine that we would be sitting in this position," quarterback Jameis Winston said. "But if we were sitting at 5-2, and we had worse stats, there really wouldn't be a conversation."

SECONDARY AMBITIONS: Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro sounds eager to see if New Orleans' pass defense, which was statistically among the NFL's worst the previous three seasons, can build on a string of solid performances throughout his club's five-game winning streak.

That will mean containing receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, and tight end Cameron Brate, who've helped the Bucs gain 295.4 yards per game through the air.

"Our mentality is we've moved past that bend-but-not-break thing where you give up yards and still win. We want keep stopping people," Vaccaro said.

"This will be our biggest test to date. ... We want to prove a point. We want to challenge these guys and we'll find out exactly what type of secondary we have."

CLOSING GAPS: The Saints' defensive front has been susceptible to giving up sporadic big gains on the ground in recent weeks. Two games ago, they allowed a 46-yard TD run to Green Bay's Aaron Jones.

Last week, Chicago's Jordan Howard had a 50-yard run and QB Mitchell Trubisky scrambled for 46. Now New Orleans faces Bucs running back Doug Martin , who has 247 yards and two TDs rushing in three games since serving a four-game drug suspension.

DEFENDING BREES: Containing Saints quarterback Drew Brees is a challenge everywhere, but Tampa Bay has had a particularly difficult time slowing him and the Saints in the Superdome.

In his past six home games against the Bucs, Brees has thrown for 1,871 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions for a 102.6 passer rating.

Tampa Bay has the league's 30th-ranked pass defense and is last in the NFL with seven sacks.

"Anytime you're playing a really good quarterback and he is able to stay in rhythm, it's going to be a tough out," said Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who also had plenty of experience facing Brees as Atlanta's head coach.

"It's going to be imperative that we try to get him flustered a little bit, whether it's by changing up the coverage, whether it's by adding extra rushers. There are different ways you can do it."

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AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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