The NFC South is just getting warmed up.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2) and New Orleans Saints (5-2) were already embroiled in one of the NFL's most compelling division battles heading into Sunday night's crucial showdown in Tampa (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). Now they're about to add two of the greatest receivers of the past decade for the second half of the season: Antonio Brown and Michael Thomas.
Brown will make his debut with the Bucs, appearing in his first game in 14 months. Thomas, meanwhile, appears likely to play for the first time since he suffered a high ankle sprain at the end of New Orleans' Week 1 victory over the Buccaneers.
Thomas is officially listed as questionable. But he practiced all week on a limited basis, and a source told ESPN's Dianna Russini that he is expected to play.
Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said Brown could play somewhere between 10 and 35 snaps on Sunday. Saints coach Sean Payton -- who respected Brown's talent enough to bring him in for a tryout in New Orleans late last season -- said that could be enough for the four-time first-team All-Pro to make an impact.
"You know, one big play at the wrong time could [be a game-changer]. And it doesn't require 11 catches," Payton said. "He's explosive and smart. He understands football.
"The challenge this week is not having any idea about, 'Does he come out and play the Z or the X? How much?' So you have to be prepared for where they might put him in their scheme."
The Buccaneers should have a better idea of what to expect if New Orleans gets its full complement of offensive playmakers back. (Receiver Emmanuel Sanders was also activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list this week after missing the past two games.) But that won't make the Saints any easier to defend.
"Without even giving him the ball, you have to account for Mike Thomas," Kamara said. "Defense is an anticipating game. They've gotta anticipate what's gonna happen when Mike Thomas is on the field. ... And obviously, when you put the ball in his hands and you get him moving around and running how he's used to running and doing the things he's used to doing, it's not many players, not many defenses that can stop him."
Here's a look at how much of an impact Brown and Thomas could have down the stretch -- and what else the Buccaneers and Saints have to do to win the South.
Brown demands defenses' attention
Unlike Thomas, Brown won't be the focal point of the Bucs' passing game. But his presence takes some of the attention off of players who have been doing the heavy lifting, such as Mike Evans, who said he is just now starting to feel close to 100 percent after suffering an ankle injury in Week 4. The injury impacted Evans' ability to cut, but he has also seen a lot more double coverage when Chris Godwin hasn't been out on the field, which has significantly impacted his production. Godwin's status for Sunday isn't certain, and much of that will depend on soreness, but Arians said Friday after Godwin caught passes for the first time since his surgery Oct. 27, "I would anticipate him probably playing."
What Brown brings to the Bucs' offense that can help the team make not only a playoff push but also a Super Bowl push is that he can do it all as a route runner. He's just as dangerous on the go routes and deep routes used with Scotty Miller as he is on short-to-intermediate passes underneath and crossing routes used with Godwin. He has Godwin-like versatility, which Arians has described as invaluable.
"He's a dynamic player. The thing that you always knew with him was his transition ability in and out of cuts is definitely his strong suit," Payton said of Brown.
The Bucs will create some packages for Brown against the Saints, but Arians is keeping it close to the vest. In Brown and Brady's one and only game together last season -- a 43-0 win over the Dolphins in Week 2 -- Brown lined up in the slot on 12 snaps and outside on 12 others.
Although he didn't run any for the Patriots, you can't overlook Brown's ability on post routes, which has become a defining characteristic of Brady's move to Arians' offense. Brown has caught 67% of his post routes since 2017. Brady has already thrown as many post route attempts this season (14) as he did all of last season, with only Matt Ryan and Patrick Mahomes having thrown more, with 15 each. The Bucs now have four of the top 15 players in targets on post routes since 2017.
Brown doesn't need to play a ton of snaps to do some damage. In his one game with the Patriots, Brown was targeted eight times on 14 routes run (57.1%), and he caught four passes for 56 receiving yards and a touchdown. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, there have been more than 2,300 instances of a WR running 10-plus routes in a game since the start of last season; only one was targeted more frequently than Brown was in that game.
"He's efficient in everything he does. ... There's not much wasted movement, so one small movement or one error, he'll definitely leave you in the dust," Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis said. "You've gotta be on your P's and Q's with AB."
As far as the Bucs' title hopes, a lot of that hinges on the success of their defense, which has made some uncharacteristic mistakes the last two weeks, missing tackles against the Raiders and giving up 100 rushing yards for the first time this season against the Giants. They wound up surrendering 347 and 357 scrimmage yards against the Raiders and Giants respectively -- their highest two-game total in back-to-back weeks this season.
"Some of 'em was just, like they had the perfect playcall for the situation we was in, and they just took advantage of it and they just made a better play than we did," Pro Bowl outside linebacker Shaq Barrett said. "But just looking at the film, we know we're in the right position, we've just gotta be able to make the plays."
Will Thomas' return bring the deep ball back?
The Saints have maintained their efficiency on offense even without Thomas and Sanders, thanks to Kamara's sensational play and the savviness of Payton and Drew Brees.
But the team could surely use a spark in the downfield passing game. Who better to provide that than Thomas, who shattered the NFL record with 149 receptions last year?
As Kamara said, even if Thomas isn't the one getting the ball, he could open things up for others.
"He impacts the game plan a lot," Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said of Thomas. "Kamara was enough, but they get all their weapons back in Thomas and [Emmanuel] Sanders -- they'll be fully loaded, obviously -- and you have [tight end Jared] Cook as well. ...
"We can't favor one guy or the other. We've got to be sound in our technique, sound in everything we do and just try to slow him down. He's dangerous, and he's probably one of the best in the league."
When asked what makes Thomas a challenge to defend, Bowles said, "I'm sure he has a great work ethic. He can catch it underneath. He can catch it over the top. He has strong hands. He blocks for them. He can run the route tree for them. He can do a lot of things, which makes him very dangerous."
Barrett added, "They just have that chemistry. They've got it. [Brees] knows exactly where 13's gonna be at, and when he put the ball on him, he got a huge catch radius. He's a great player."
The Bucs had Davis, their top cornerback who is in the midst of a breakout season, with a league-leading four interceptions, shadow Thomas in Week 1, and Davis limited Thomas to three catches for 17 yards.
When asked why he was so successful against Thomas, whom he's expected to shadow again this week, Davis said, "I like to get hands-on. I like to be physical off the line and throw the timing off. Some of his routes are kind of like timing routes. That's my game."
Brees leads the NFL, as usual, with a completion percentage of 73.1%. After a sluggish start in the first two games, he has the league's third-best passer rating since Week 3, at 111.2, behind only those of Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.
The Saints are top-10 in the NFL in yards per game, points per game, third-down conversion rate and fewest turnovers.
But as has been scrutinized, Brees is throwing the ball downfield even less than usual. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, only 3% of Brees' passes have traveled at least 20 yards in the air this season -- the second-lowest rate by any player through eight weeks since ESPN began charting that statistic in 2006.
Now Brees is dealing with an unspecified injury to his right shoulder that limited him in practice earlier this week.
When Payton was asked if he thinks the Saints' offense should find its groove once they have all of their playmakers together, he cautiously responded, "We'll see."
"There's some things that I think we're doing better. And yet I think there's a lot of work still ahead of us to be as efficient as we'd like to be," he said.
The more glaring issue for New Orleans' title hopes is probably finding consistency on the other side of the ball.
The Saints' talent-rich defense has repeatedly sabotaged itself by allowing deep passing plays against coverage breakdowns. New Orleans has allowed a startling seven passes of 48 or more yards in the past five games.
The Saints' defense ranks eighth in the NFL in yards allowed per game and third against the run. But they have faltered in areas such as red zone defense (last, at 83.33%) and third-down defense (22nd, at 47.92%).
Next they face one of their stiffest tests against an even deeper and more diverse Tampa Bay offense.
"It's just a focus thing with us. We've got the talent," said Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who has played his best football against Evans, holding him to zero catches on 54 routes the past two seasons. "Every week we go in there like we're going to dominate. But some little things turn to big things. So that's just what it is. We just got to fix those things, stay consistent, and we'll be all right."