- Associated Press - Saturday, December 12, 2015

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - The surging Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren’t afraid to talk about playoff aspirations.

Coaches and players stress there’s still a lot of work to be done over the final month of the regular season. However, there’s also a growing belief in the locker room that the team has mettle to finish the job.

A challenging stretch run continues Sunday against struggling NFC South rival New Orleans, which, despite a four-game losing streak, has an offense capable of giving any opponent fits.

“It’s exciting,” team captain Vincent Jackson said, looking ahead to playing meaningful games in December for the first time since he signed with the Bucs (6-6) in 2012.

“We haven’t had that in the past few years here, but it’s in front of us,” the six-time 1,000-yard receiver added. “Nothing is in ink … but to be in that conversation really is a nice change.”

Tampa Bay has missed the playoffs the past seven seasons and is a year removed from going 2-14, landing the opportunity to draft Jameis Winston No. 1 overall.

The rookie’s development has been one of the keys to winning four of six to climb into contention for an NFC wild-card berth. The 2013 Heisman Trophy winner has thrown 12 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the red zone, in addition to scoring a team-leading five TDs rushing. He’s doing his part to transform one of the league’s least productive offenses into one ranked in the Top 10.

“He has taken ahold of the leadership position and been very vocal and more confident than he was in the beginning of the season,” running back Doug Martin, the NFL’s second-leading rusher, said.

Saints coach Sean Payton is impressed with Winston’s growth, too.

“For a first-year quarterback, obviously getting into games, starting games and playing, you see (development) in each week, really,” Peyton said. “Sometimes it comes maybe more noticeably to the fans in a certain game, but I think he’s operating their offense well.”

Winston has won over Tampa Bay’s locker room with a willingness to do whatever is necessary to help the team, be it throwing the ball or scrambling out of the pocket, as he did on a 20-yard run on third-and-19 to set up a winning TD pass to Mike Evans against Atlanta last week.

“That’s just pure want-to and the fact that everyone wants to win,” Winston said of his knack for delivering in clutch situations, particularly late in games.

“Winning is contagious. I know that’s cliche, but winning is so contagious. … The easiest thing in football is just to lose,” the rookie quarterback added. “It’s hard to win, and we want to do the hard things. We want to get wins.”

The Bucs won against the Saints 26-19 in Week 2. New Orleans’ season gone downhill in a hurry since winning three straight to improve to 4-4.

But Tampa Bay knows any time it faces Drew Brees it’s not going to easy. The Saints have won seven of the past eight meetings.

And while New Orleans’ injury-depleted defense ranks at the bottom of the league statistically and is on pace to set a record for TD passes allowed in a season, the Brees-led offense is averaging over 300 yards per game through the air.

Some things to know about the Saints and Buccaneers:

DEFENSIVE DISCONTENT: The Saints’ defense ranks last in NFL in terms of yards (425.2) and points (31.7) allowed per game, and with 35 TDs passing allowed, the unit is on pace to give up more than the record 40 by the 1963 Broncos. Opposing QBs have a combined passer rating of 116.6, which would be the worst in league history if it remains that high. “There’s always some ailment that has affected our game, in every game, and that’s something that we have to take to heart,” DE Cam Jordan said.

SLOWING DOWN BREES: Despite losing seven of the past eight in the series, the Bucs have given Brees problems at times. They had six interceptions in two games against the Saints last season and just eight combined in Tampa Bay’s other 14 games. Tampa Bay had one interception when the team met earlier this year.

GROUND DOWN: The Saints rank 25th in rushing (94.4 yards per game), and that was with top rusher Mark Ingram in the lineup. But Ingram, a good receiver out of backfield who leads the Saints with 1,174 scrimmage yards, is out for the season with a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder. C.J. Spiller, Tim Hightower and rookie Marcus Murphy figure to be more involved in the offense now.

PEAT’S POTENTIAL: The Saints are finding ways to get top draft choice Andrus Peat on the field more lately by having him rotate in at guard. He was drafted as a tackle, and Payton says that remains the Saints’ long-term vision for him. But with veteran right guard Jahri Evans sidelined recently, Peat has started the past two games at guard.

GETTING OVER THE HUMP: If the Bucs win, they’ll climb over .500 for the first time since November 2012, when they were 6-4 before beginning a five-game losing streak and finishing 7-9.


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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