Welcome to my weekly post-game column, where I’ll take a look at the moment(s) the game turned either in favor or against the Buccaneers. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive look at all the reasons the Bucs won or lost, but instead the key moment or two where things went north or south for the team.
It’s been a remarkable season for rookie free safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., as he’s made several of the most clutch defensive plays of the season for Tampa Bay. From breaking up passes in the end zone late in narrow wins over the Giants and Falcons to a timely sack against Minnesota late in Week 14, Winfield has consistently been the Bucs’ difference maker in the secondary because of his splash plays. On Sunday night against New Orleans in the divisional playoffs, the rookie made another monumental play to change the game.
On third-and-2 from the Saints’ 45-yard line, New Orleans ran a slant-flat concept designed to pick Winfield with the flat route, after the rookie safety made a rare appearance in press position on the play. The concept worked perfectly, as Drew Brees hit tight end Jared Cook over the middle of the field in a catch-and-run situation to move the chains and cross into Bucs territory. But as Cook turned up-field looking for more yardage, Winfield raced up behind him and punched the ball out for a huge turnover.
Linebacker Devin White collected the bouncing ball beautifully, cornerback Carlton Davis III nearly laid out wide receiver Michael Thomas on the return, and Winfield’s crucial play set the Bucs up with a first down at the Saints’ 40-yard line. Five plays later, the Bucs offense finished off a drive in the red zone to tie the game at 20-20 with 2:22 left in the third quarter. On both sides of the ball, Tampa Bay would never look back.
Defensively, the Bucs allowed just 35 yards the rest of the game and collected two more turnovers on three Saints drives, finishing off a performance that held Sean Payton’s crew to 294 yards and just 190 yards through the air. Offensively, the Bucs found their way enough to drive 61 yards for the 23-20 lead with under 10 minutes remaining in the game, then White’s interception and return to the Saints’ 20 set Tampa Bay’s struggling offense up with a short field to drive for the ten point lead with under five minutes to play.
But it was Winfield’s massive strip on the biggest stage that spurred the Bucs’ 17 unanswered points. On a night where the Bucs offense continued to struggle to solve Dennis Allen’s defense, splash plays like Winfield’s made all of the difference between getting a familiar result against New Orleans and getting a new one. Not bad for a second-round rookie, who currently looks like the steal of the draft in a class shaping up to be a legendary one for Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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