NEW ORLEANS — Antoine Winfield Jr. was in the center of the Bucs’ huddle at midfield, giving an animated pep talk before the team headed to the locker room following pre-game warmups at the Superdome on Sunday.
After that, Winfield could be found in the middle of every big play in the Bucs’ 26-9 win over the Saints to help his team improve to 3-1 and take control of the NFC South heading into a bye week.
The Pro Bowl safety is a Swiss Army knife for the Bucs, someone who can operate on any of the three levels of the defense and move seamlessly between them from play to play.
Winfield won the game at the end of the first half. Quarterback Baker Mayfield, who threw three touchdowns Sunday, was intercepted at the New Orleans 1-yard line, trying to force a pass to Chris Godwin with his team leading 7-3 just 41 seconds before halftime.
But on the next play, Winfield punched the ball away from Saints fullback Adam Prentice and recovered the fumble at the New Orleans 6-yard line. Two plays later, Mayfield threw a touchdown pass to rookie Trey Palmer and the Bucs never looked back.
While improving to 3-1 and taking control of the NFC South, the Bucs became the first team to hold the Saints without a touchdown since the 49ers in Week 12 last season.
They did it because Winfield filled up nearly every column of the stat sheet. He led the team with nine tackles, a sack, two tackles for losses, a quarterback hit, pass defensed, forced fumble and fumble recovery.
“I’m not surprised,” cornerback Zyon McCollum said. “He does it every day in practice and that’s just the kind of person he is. He attacks everything on and off the field the same way. The same mentality. He’s just a beaming light for this team and around the facility and it’s just so contagious.”
After Tom Brady retired, the NFL pundits picked the Bucs to finish last in the NFC South, and their power ranking was 31st in the league by Sports Illustrated.
Those prognosticators forgot that a champions heart still beats inside the collective chests of the Bucs and players such as Winfield, who won a Super Bowl as a rookie. He also is the only player in the NFL this season with multiple games of at least one sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Earlier in the week, Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan went so far as to say the Bucs weren’t a rival for New Orleans.
“We know what kind of game it’s always going to be,” tackle Tristan Wirfs said. “It’s always physical. It’s always chippy. I think for them to kind of downplay it, it’s a division game. There’s always going to be a lot behind it. It just was more bulletin board material. I’ll take it.”
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The Bucs also were embarrassed by Monday Night’s 25-11 loss to the Eagles, particularly on defense, which gave up more than 200 yards rushing.
Winfield, who will become an unrestricted free agent next March, continues to make himself more money by performances like the one Sunday.
“He played great. He did a heck of a job punching the ball out right there,” coach Todd Bowles said. “We didn’t play well on Monday night and wanted to come back and redeem ourselves. A lot of guys stepped up. A lot of injured guys played and they played well as a group, as a team. I thought it was a great team win for us.”
The game was billed as the renewal of a rematch between Bucs receiver Mike Evans and Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, a one-on-one brawl that has resulted in two one-game suspensions and more than $100,000 in fines for Evans.
But after catching three passes for 40 yards, Evans left the game in the second quarter with a hamstring strain and didn’t return.
Fortunately, both Palmer and second-year pro Deven Thompkins stepped up and each had touchdowns.
The Saints may regret the decision to start quarterback Derek Carr, who sprained the AC joint in his throwing shoulder in last week’s loss to the Packers.
Carr never threatened the Bucs deep and finished 23-of-37 for 137 yards and zero touchdowns. Only 79 of those passing yards came before the fourth quarter. He finally left the game after a sack/fumble at the Saints’ 25-yard line with less than four minutes remaining.
“We got our ass beat today,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said. “Unacceptable. Obviously, nobody is happy about it.”
Former Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston came in for one play and threw an interception to Dee Delaney.
“Just really inconsistent right now,” Carr said. “Just too inconsistent for the standard that we set for ourselves, and the inconsistency isn’t going to get you wins in this league.”
Winfield said the Bucs were prepared for either quarterback and felt like they could control the game on defense.
“Regardless of who was in, they kind of ran the same scheme,” he said. “I just studied them and felt like I had a good grasp.
“It’s huge. It’s more special coming to New Orleans and winning because it was a divisional game and it’s always going to be tough games whenever you’re in the division, so it’s a huge win.”
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