There are 32 games left on the NFL's 2016 regular-season schedule, and given how deep the potential tiebreakers could go, a good many of them are important to the playoff race. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have to wait well into the afternoon on January 1 to find out if they've been invited to the postseason dance.
Jameis Winston, for one, is not content to wait that long. As far as he's concerned, the playoffs have already begun for the Buccaneers.
"Absolutely, and we start on the road," said the second-year quarterback to the idea that the Bucs were in playoff mode. "We know we're going to be on the road in a tough environment against the Saints. So, yeah, it starts now. We've got to start preparing for the show."
It's a sensible approach to take, given that the Buccaneers may need to win both of their remaining contests and finish 10-6 to secure their first playoff berth since 2007. There are scenarios in which Tampa Bay gets in at 9-7, but they are more complicated and far more tenuous. And a team that needs to win two in a row can't accomplish that if it loses the first game, so this Saturday's trip to New Orleans looms very large.
"We've got to focus on this week, a big, big week," said Winston. "The next two weeks are huge but this is the biggest week right here."
Tampa Bay's playoff hopes got a boost on Monday night when the Carolina Panthers beat the Washington Redskins. There were surely plenty of Buccaneer rooters in and out of team headquarters paying close attention to the finish of that game, but Winston wasn't one of them. Following a Sunday night game and a very late arrival on Monday morning, Winston says he went to sleep during the third quarter of Monday's contest. He had meetings in the morning and practice in the afternoon, and he chose to focus on the Buccaneers rather than endless analysis of the playoff picture.
Pictures of the Top 10 Saints in Week 15, according to their Pro Football Focus player grade.
"I love math, but I don't trust the percentages and the probabilities," said Winston. "I trust our heart, this team's heart, and what we need to do to find a way to get in there."
The loss in Dallas put a small dent in the Bucs' playoff hopes after a five-game winning streak had deposited the team right in the thick of the race. However, it didn't change Tampa Bay's path to a potential division title (that would still require one more win than the Falcons over the next two weeks) and it didn't erase the team's belief that it could hold its own against any team when the playoffs arrive.
"That game's behind us; we've got to focus on this game," said Winston. "Obviously, you've got to look at stuff that you can improve on in games like that, and stuff we could have done to help us out, but now it's behind us. All we can do is hope that we get a chance at them again.
"We compete and we've shown that we can beat the best and battle with the best."
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Tampa's eight wins include victories over three teams that are very solidly in the playoff race (Seattle, Atlanta and Kansas City) as well as one over the same Carolina team that just severely damaged Washington's playoff hopes. In addition, the Bucs have already shown they can defeat the Saints, as they took a 16-11 decision over their division foes just eight days ago at Raymond James Stadium. Of course, that Drew Brees-led New Orleans squad just rebounded with 48 points in a win over Arizona on Sunday. There is no chance the playoff-minded Buccaneers will look past the Saints.
"It's another game for us, another game that we have to take seriously because we control our destiny now," said Winston. "[It's] a game that we've got to win. Definitely, now the playoffs are on our mind. We've got to play our best no matter if we just played them a week ago."
While the Buccaneers may not have complete control over their playoff fates at this point, Winston is essentially correct. Tampa Bay gets in with most of its 10-win scenarios, especially if the Cowboys beat the Lions next Monday. The NFL playoff calculator on Five Thirty Eight puts the Buccaneers odds of qualifying for the postseason at 98% if they win the next two games.
That's not a site Winston is going to be visiting over the next fortnight. He calculates the Bucs' odds by looking around him at his teammates in the huddle and in the locker room.
"[It's] just never giving up," he said. "Playing against tough teams and believing we can do it, expecting to win, not hoping; not playing not to lose but playing to win. That's important because it's a fine margin between a win and a loss. You see it – inches really determine the game that we play. So when you go out there expecting to win and not hoping, it makes a difference."