Jameis Winston can no longer ignore the reality of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers being in the thick of a race for their first playoff berth in nearly a decade.
The second-year quarterback routinely shrugs off questions about the young team's growing playoff prospects, although he concedes that's becoming increasingly more difficult.
"It's in my mind," Winston said after Sunday's 16-11 victory over Drew Brees and the sputtering New Orleans Saints extended the team's longest winning streak in 14 years to five games.
"But going 1-0 (each week) is very important to us as a team," the 2013 Heisman Trophy winning added. "We're really not trying to look forward. We've got to keep winning. ... As long as we keep getting W's, the playoffs are going to be there."
Winston failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time as a pro, but still outplayed Brees by doing what he's done well during Tampa Bay's surge: minimize mistakes.
The Bucs (8-5) intercepted the New Orleans star three times while holding him without a TD pass for the first time since Brees signed with the Saints as a free agent in 2006.
Winston, meanwhile, threw for 184 yards without an interception. The first overall pick from last year's draft had thrown at least one TD pass in 28 consecutive games to begin his career.
"I love wins, I'll tell you that," the smiling 22-year-old said. "Touchdowns don't mean much unless it's the touchdown to win the game."
Brees entered leading the NFL in completions, attempts, completion percentage, passing yards and TD passes, but failed to throw for a touchdown for the second straight week, the first time he's done that in consecutive games since 2009.
Nevertheless, the Saints quarterback went over 4,000 yards for a league-record 11th consecutive season, finishing 25 of 41 for 257 yards and three interceptions.
Brees was also intercepted three times during a 15-point loss to Detroit the previous week.
The Saints (5-8) were hoping to tighten the NFC South standings , but instead dropped three games behind division co-leaders Atlanta and Tampa Bay with three to play.
Coach Sean Payton expects his team to regroup and finish strong, not merely play out the string.
"It's one of the challenging things that we do," Payton said. "They'll handle it the right way."
Some takeaways from the Bucs beating the Saints for only the second time in the last 10 meetings between the division rivals:
LET'S GO FOR SIX
The Bucs have won five straight for the first time since 2002, the season they went on to win their only Super Bowl. The surge has them in contention for their first playoff berth since 2007. Tampa Bay hasn't won six in a row since 1999, when the team rebounded from a slow start to win eight of nine down the stretch to finish 11-5.
Tampa Bay's Bryan Anger averaged 46.3 yards on four punts, including a pair during the closing minutes that were downed at the New Orleans 1 and 3. "Not only the punts, but the coverage," Koetter said. "Those two red-zone punts at the end, those two flip-flops that he nailed, those are huge."
The Saints had three turnovers, were 4 for 13 (31 percent) in third-down efficiency and settled for field goals on both of their drives inside Tampa Bay's 20. "Too many third-and-long situations, and it ended up costing us," Payton said. The Saints also hurt themselves with 13 accepted penalties for 104 yards, including a false start on second-and-1 from the Bucs 1 that cost them a chance to get in the end zone just before halftime.
STILL GOING STRONG
Brees, 37, is in his 11th season with New Orleans and has thrown for more than 4,000 yards every year since joining the team. He reached the plateau again on a completion to Brandon Coleman late in the first half and has 4,107 passing yards through 13 games. Winston is closing in on his second straight 4,000-yard season for the Bucs, who only have one other 4,000-yard season in team history (Josh Freeman 2012).
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