Friday, February 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Is Jameis Winston ready for his NFL closeup?

Jameis Winston stood circled by teammates and began his motivational pregame speech. The topic? As usual, he covered nearly everything from A to Z.

"We got to eat, and I know we're hungry!" Winston began minutes before facing the Saints last Sunday. "I know we can eat another W. I know ya'll done had some alphabets before. Let's eat a W tonight. But let's do it as a family. We need this. … Let's go eat some W's tonight, baby. I'm tasting the soup."

Winston has been mmm-mmm good this season. By leading the 8-5 Bucs to five straight W's — including last Sunday's 16-11 victory over New Orleans — he has them in the NFC playoff picture.

At 22, he appears to be the salvation for a franchise that hasn't sniffed the postseason in nine years.

Winston knows tonight's game against the Cowboys is the biggest he has played in the NFL. He's facing America's Team, which has the best record (11-2) in the NFC, before a national television audience, with the playoffs at sake.

Winston refuses to make the moment even bigger.

"We play the game for games like this — the ability to control our destiny, the ability to be on the stage of Sunday Night Football," he said. "That's one of the reasons why people enjoy this game. But my mentality (is) we're just trying to go 1-0."

However, as general manager Jason Licht will tell you, the Bucs used last year's No. 1 overall draft pick on Winston for mammoth games like this. He is supposed to be special, from his we-are-family leadership to his voracious football mind.

"He has this unique ability to compartmentalize things and really focus," Licht said. Games like this are "when you feel good having Jameis out there," he said.

Winston also seems to have navigated through questions about his character. On Wednesday, attorneys confirmed that Winston and the woman who accused him of sexual assault while both were students at Florida State have reached a tentative settlement and intend to dismiss civil lawsuits against each other within 20 days.

That news came as Winston prepared for his largest national stage since his Seminole days. And yet the quarterback getting most of the attention nationally last week was Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott, who once roomed with Winston at a Peyton Manning passing camp.

Prescott, 23 and seven months older than Winston, has passed for 3,139 yards and 20 touchdowns, and he has only four interceptions. But after losing to the Giants on Sunday for the second time, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gave rise to speculation Prescott would be replaced by veteran Tony Romo. He later gave Prescott his support.

Winston and the Bucs have struggles of their own. Running back Doug Martin is averaging fewer than 3 yards per carry since his return from a hamstring injury Nov. 13 against the Bears. Receiver Mike Evans has seven catches for 80 yards and no scores in the past two games.

Last week against the Saints, Winston failed to pass or run for a touchdown in a game for the first time since high school.

Now comes his most intense NFL closeup. Winston has spent most of his football life inside a velvet rope, so the big stage is nothing to new to him.

"I don't know if I've been a huge believer in gamers. I'm not sure there's a gamer," Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. "But I do think there's players that the moment doesn't get too big for them.

"I just buy that the moment doesn't faze them one way or the other. And we can help that by playing well around (Winston)."

If Tampa Bay wins its final three games, it will secure a playoff spot for the first time since 2008. With a big-time quarterback for a big game, the Bucs and Winston are eating this up.

"We're very confident where we are as a team, as a family," Winston said.

 
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