TAMPA — QB Jameis Winston knows there are all kinds of scenarios, calculations and probabilities of the Bucs reaching the postseason. But he's focused on the division — as in, beating NFC South rivals New Orleans and Carolina, starting Saturday against the Saints.
If the season ended today, the Bucs would be on the outside looking in with the seventh seed in the NFC behind Green Bay.
"I love math. But I don't trust the percentages and the probabilities," Winston said. "I trust our heart. This team's heart and what we need to do to find a way to get in here."
What has Winston learned about the Bucs' heart while winning five of their past six games?
"Just never giving up. Playing against tough teams and believing that we can do it," Winston said. "Expecting to win, not hoping. Not playing not to lose but playing to win. That's important. It's a fine margin between a win and a loss. Inches really determine the game we play."
At 8-6, Winston considers every game they play as essentially a playoff game since they can't afford to lose any.
"Absolutely, and we start on the road," Winston said. "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."
The Bucs moved back ahead of Washington with the Redskins' loss to Carolina on Sunday. If the Bucs win out, and if either the Lions lose to Dallas on Monday or the Falcons lose one of their final two games, Tampa Bay would reach the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
But coach Dirk Koetter says there's no use worrying about postseason scenarios.
"It's everywhere, so you can't miss it," Koetter said. "Of course, it's out there. We talked about it a little bit in the meeting, but if we don't do what we're supposed to do, it's a waste of your time. If we don't do what we're supposed to do, it's just speculation," Koetter said. "We got our hands full just worrying about the Saints this week. The rest of it is just a bunch of math problems that are over my head."
DOTSON RETURNS, STILL IN PROTOCOL: RT Demar Dotson remains in concussion protocol but returned to practice Tuesday for the first time since suffering a concussion 16 days earlier, a first step toward potentially returning for Saturday's game.
Veteran Gosder Cherilus has stepped in for Dotson the past two games but was beaten on two fourth-quarter sacks in Sunday's loss to the Cowboys, missing the final six snaps due to a groin injury. If neither could go Saturday, the Bucs would turn to undrafted rookie Leonard Wester, who has played in only two games this season.
Bucs WR Mike Evans, who missed a handful of snaps in Sunday's game with an undisclosed injury, was held out of Tuesday's practice but was doing enough work on the side that the move seemed precautionary rather than something that would sideline him Saturday. DT Gerald McCoy, who has been held out of the first practice in the past few weeks, participated in Tuesday's, a good sign of his relative health.
YOU AGAIN?: The Bucs beat the Saints 16-11 on Dec. 11, so playing them two weeks later will be the ultimate board game. "Well, 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," Koetter said. "There's only so many things out there, and then how much do you care about practicing at full speed and 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."
Times staff writer Greg Auman contributed to this report.