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Buccaneers begin their playoffs against Saints

NEW ORLEANS -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 8-6 and have yet to qualify for the playoffs, but quarterback Jameis Winston says the playoffs actually start Saturday against the 6-8 New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

"Absolutely, and we start on the road," Winston said of Saturday's rematch against the Saints, the second time the teams have played in the last 13 days. "We know we'll be on the road in a tough environment against the Saints, and it starts now. We've got to start preparing for the show."

The Buccaneers can clinch their first playoff berth since 2007 by winning their final two games against the Saints and at home against the Carolina Panthers on Jan. 1. They can make the playoffs even if they do not sweep their last two games, but coach Dirk Koetter said he does not want to consider any other scenario.

"We've got our hands full just worrying about the Saints," Koetter said. "The rest of is a bunch of math problems that are over my head."

Winston said, "I love math, but I don't trust percentages and probabilities. I trust our heart -- this team's heart -- and what we need to do to get in there."

The Buccaneers' defense threw a blanket over the Saints' high-octane offense in a 16-11 victory on Dec. 11, forcing Drew Brees into three interceptions and holding the league's top-ranked offense to 294 yards.

Brees did not throw a touchdown pass. The Saints average 423.3 yards per game and are second in scoring (29.0), but the Buccaneers pressured Brees far more than their one sack would indicate.

"We found ourselves in minus situations," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "They forced some turnovers. Our third-down numbers were poor (4-for-13). I think they hit the quarterback too early, too often, and I think it becomes hard to play that position when you have traffic in your face."

The Buccaneers' stout defense was recognized this week with the selection of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to his fifth Pro Bowl. Middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, weakside linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Brent Grimes also were selected as alternates.

Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Mike Smith, the former head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, said he was particularly happy for Alexander's selection. Alexander, a second-year player out of LSU, came up with 21 total tackles in Tampa Bay's 26-20 loss to Dallas last week, a loss that snapped a five-game winning streak.

"You're seeing a player who's really coming into his own," Smith said. "There's been a maturation process this season. The arrow is definitely going up. Kwon's best trait is his ability to run."

The Buccaneers rank fifth in the NFL with 29 takeaways, and they have 33 sacks.

"Since their Thursday night game (a 43-28 loss to the Falcons on Nov. 3), they would be first in the league in forced turnovers," Payton said. "They're getting pressure on the quarterbacks. They're in the top five on third down. And, offensively, they've done a nice job with the big plays. They're patient."

While not mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, the Saints likely will be on the outside looking in for the third consecutive season. They have stayed in the hunt mainly because of another marvelous season from Brees, who was snubbed in the Pro Bowl voting.

In the Saints' six victories this season, their opponents have averaged 29.5 points, an incredibly high total for Brees to have to overcome.

Brees' 4,559 passing yards through 14 games -- which leads the league -- is the second highest in his career. He has completed 71.1 percent of his passes for 34 touchdowns against 14 interceptions.

Brees took the Pro Bowl vote in stride.

"I haven't seen the list yet, but I am sure there are a lot of deserving candidates," he said. "It's not something I am concerned with."

Brees said he felt bad that center Max Unger, defensive end Cam Jordan and running back Mark Ingram did not make the list, but he understood that the Saints' record had an impact on the vote.

Despite the short week, both teams are relatively healthy.

Saints cornerback Delvin Breaux (shoulder) and fullback John Kun (hip) did not practice on Wednesday.

Not practicing for Tampa Bay on Wednesday were defensive end Robert Ayers (illness), tackle Gosder Cherilus and defensive end William Gholston.

Updated December 21, 2016

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