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Winston: Bucs' postseason run starts in New Orleans

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

By BRETT MARTEL

AP Sports Writer

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston figures the Buccaneers give themselves their best chance at a playoff berth by acting as if the postseason starts early - as in, Saturday in New Orleans.

"Yeah, it starts now," Winston said this week. "It's a game that we've got to win."

The Buccaneers could win one of their final two games and make the playoffs, but would need considerable help.

As it is, Tampa Bay (8-6) might not make the playoffs even by reaching 10 victories.

So, realistically, the Buccaneers figure they have to win out against the Saints (6-8) this weekend and against Carolina in the regular-season finale.

The Bucs don't seem to lack confidence in their ability to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

"We've shown that we can beat the best and battle with the best," Winston said.

Last weekend, the Bucs fell 26-20 at NFC-leading Dallas. But they might have pulled out that game if not for four turnovers, including Winston's late-game interception.

Now they're on the road again, but this time against a Saints team they beat 16-11 less than two weeks ago. New Orleans was the turnover-plagued club in the first meeting; Drew Brees threw three interceptions.

Brees bounced back last Sunday in Arizona, passing for 369 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-41 victory , and the Saints - whose playoff possibilities, however remote, are not officially extinguished - are hoping that's the kind of offense they bring to the Superdome in this unusually quick rematch with a divisional foe.

"It's not going to be something new or magical," said Saints running back Tim Hightower, who rushed for a pair of touchdowns against the Cardinals. "We had three turnovers last game" in Tampa Bay.

This time, Hightower said, the Saints don't need to alter their scheme so much as "do a better job of executing this game and sustaining drives and get in the end zone."

That might be easier said than done against the Buccaneers defense, whose 26 takeaways rank third in the NFL.

Here are some other story lines surrounding Tampa Bay's high-stakes visit to the Big Easy:

QUICK TURNAROUND: Not only are these teams meeting for the second time in three weeks, but also on a short week, with this game being just six days after each team's previous game.

"That's the whole chess match part of playing somebody this close together is both staffs have to decide what plays are you leaving in, what plays are you taking out and what are you replacing them with," Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter said. "You never know how much they're going to change either. You can't just assume they're going to go out and play exactly the same."

EAGER EVANS: The Buccaneers are hoping to get Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans, who has a career-best 84 receptions for 1,159 yards, more involved in their offense again. The third-year pro is tied for first in the NFC with 10 touchdown receptions. However, he doesn't have any in the past three weeks while being limited to 11 receptions for 139 yards by the Chargers, Saints and Cowboys.

New Orleans limited him to four catches for 42 yards, and Evans - a first-time Pro Bowl selection - sounds eager for another shot at the Saints' secondary.

"It's a big game for us, our biggest one of the year," Evans said. "Last time I had some opportunities I wish I could have capitalized on. I look forward to capitalizing on them this Saturday."

QB COMPARISON: Saints coach Sean Payton asserts that Winston is having an exceptional season - particularly for a second-year pro - even if his statistical accomplishments have fallen far short of the numbers an elite QB such as Brees has put up.

Winston has 948 fewer yards passing, nine fewer TDs and one more interception than Brees, who also has completed a significantly higher percentage of throws (71.1 percent) than Winston (60.8 percent).

"The first thing you measure a quarterback by is success," Payton said of Winston. "He's a fantastic leader. There's a way about him that understands and appreciates winning and you kind of feel it when you watch him play. ... There's a little magic about him that I think rubs off on his teammates."

NO TIME FOR COMPLACENCY: Tampa Bay not only intercepted Brees three times, but also held the Saints star without a TD pass in the first meeting.

Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who trains with the New Orleans quarterback during the offseason, noted how well his friend played last Sunday.

"He went and did what Drew does. He bounced back and had an incredible game," McCoy said, adding that he's pretty sure Brees is looking forward to having another crack at the Bucs defense.

"I just know him," McCoy said. "I've been around him, so I'm mentally prepared."

Bucs middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, a second-year pro out of LSU, agreed.

"We know we're going to get his best shot," Alexander said, "but he's going to get our best shot, too."

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For more NFL coverage: AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Updated December 23, 2016

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