TAMPA — The image is equal parts unbridled pleasure and unimaginable pain.
With a crutch under each arm, Jameis Winston danced in the locker room at the Caesars Superdome with teammates following the Saints’ 36-27 win over the Bucs last Halloween.
Winston later learned that he had suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his left knee on a horse- collar tackle in the first half by Bucs linebacker Devin White.
With Drew Brees retired, Winston had won the starting quarterback job and had the Saints off to a 7-3 start with 14 touchdowns before the injury.
Yet instead of sulking, he was celebrating.
“The game is so much bigger than me,” Winston said Wednesday. “I was just rooting for us to win, and we won. So that excitement was more important to us as a team. … I just had to get to work and cheer on my team from afar. But again, this week is about us competing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (on Sunday). I’m here now. I’m healthy. And I’m ready to rock.”
He is fresh off engineering an impressive comeback at Atlanta in Week One. Trailing the Falcons by 16 points in the fourth quarter, Winston got hot. He passed for 245 of his 269 yards in the second half, more than 200 yards in the fourth quarter, en route to a 27-26 victory.
The Saints have owned the Bucs in the regular season recently, winning seven in a row against Tampa Bay.
But the Bucs won the biggest game of all, defeating New Orleans in the NFC Championship Game in Tom Brady’s first season on the way to winning Super Bowl 55.
Brady, who unretired this year after 40 days because he wasn’t done with football quite yet, gets another shot at a team that has had his number even when he was with the Patriots.
“I know he’s one of the best quarterbacks to play the game, and I admire him,” Winston said. “I’ve studied his game a lot. … He’s a competitor. One of the greatest competitors in sports.”
Like Brady, Winston has no shortage of weapons to throw to. Michael Thomas returns after missing last season with an ankle injury. The Saints signed free agent Jarvis Landry and have Chris Olave, the 11th overall pick in the draft out of Ohio State.
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All figured prominently in the Saints’ comeback in the opener, with Thomas catching two touchdowns. Winston was asked what it was like to have a surplus of receiving talent.
“It’s fun,” said Winston, in his third season with the Saints after spending 2015-19 with the Bucs, who drafted him first overall in ‘15. “I’ve been there before with this past team, Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson and Chris Godwin. But it’s amazing when things are in sync and you execute, beautiful things happen. When you have those competitors on the outside, you do your best to get them the ball.”
While the Saints-Bucs rivalry has always been heated, there is no bad blood between Winston and White, who apologized for the tackle that led to his injury shortly after that game.
“I can’t be mad at somebody playing football,” Winston said. “He reached out to me. He felt bad for a second, but he’s a football player, and he’s a great football player.
“The game is the game we play. Some people have had injuries. Some people have had unfortunate injuries. But it’s the game we play. We love it. We enjoy the hard hits. The cold tub, right? The contrast. Getting your body back right. That’s all a part of it.”
White, who had two sacks in the season-opening win at Dallas, said he is looking forward to tackling Winston again.
“I just want to touch him a little bit,” White said. “Get him to the ground. Get a sack on him. Get a pick off him. It’s going to be fun going there against my former teammate.”
In a way, Sunday’s game is not so much a rematch but a rebirth. Winston is back from injury. Brady is back from retirement. Both say they have much to prove.
At the end of the season, only one team gets to dance.
“This whole year was unfinished business,” Winston said. “My goal is to finish every year, and I didn’t do that (last season). They’re just the next team in the lineup that we’ve got to prepare and be ready to play because they’re a real good team.”
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @NFLSTROUD.
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