TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are rested and eager to begin a critical stretch that will be crucial to their chances of winning the NFC South.

The team reconvened following their bye week Tuesday to begin preparation for a key matchup against New Orleans (5-3), which leads the division by a half game over the Bucs (4-3) and Atlanta Falcons.

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It will be Tampa Bay’s second meeting in three games against the Saints, who gave the NFL’s youngest club some unexpected help in the race by losing to previously winless St. Louis last Sunday. A victory not only would lift the Bucs into first place but give them a sweep of the season series and a tiebreaker advantage against Drew Brees and Co.

“It’s all clumped up in the NFC South. Perfect suiting for us. Perfect suiting for winning this division like we talked about at the beginning of the year,” Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. “Somebody has to do it, why not us?”

In addition to intercepting Brees three times and forcing four turnovers overall to hold off the Saints 26-20 in Tampa on Oct. 16, the Bucs have won each of the past two seasons at New Orleans.

Last week’s bye came at an ideal for the Bucs, who have played their last two games — the victory over New Orleans and a 24-18 loss to Chicago in London — without injured running back LeGarrette Blount and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Both players practiced Tuesday and are expected to play Sunday against the Saints.

Morris also spoke favorably about the status of several other players who have been nursing injuries, including linebacker Mason Foster, safety Tanard Jackson, center Jeff Faine, fullback Erik Lorig and offensive linemen Jeremy Zuttah.

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“We know we have a resilient team, guys who fight back. We’re getting healthier. The bye was good for us. We do feel like we’re in a good position,” Morris said, noting that the Bucs are in the thick of the division chase even though they don’t feel like they’ve played up to their capability.

“We haven’t played our best football clearly, and that’s a good thing. We didn’t start playing our best football last year until probably the middle of the year or later,” the coach added. “Last year at this time we had two blowout losses under our belt. We had to bounce back from those losses. We’ve got one this year, so we’re getting a little bit better.”

The Bucs were one of the NFL’s biggest surprises a year ago, rebounding from early lopsided losses to Pittsburgh and New Orleans to finish 10-6 and narrowly missing the playoffs. Sunday’s marks the start of a stretch in which Tampa Bay plays three straight against first-place teams — the Saints, Houston and Green Bay.

“This is crunch time football, no matter what your team situation is. This week for a lot of teams it’s make or break. You’ve got to start looking at games like that,” quarterback Josh Freeman said.

“It’s no longer the beginning of the season. You’re starting to get into the home stretch. We’ve just got to find a way to play well,” Freeman added. “We found a way to do it last year. If we can channel that same sort of energy, come out and put together complete football games, we’ll be in pretty good shape come December.”

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Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.