TAMPA, Fla. -- When Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston was entering the NFL draft, he said he was chasing the greats of the game. And right now, he agrees that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is perhaps the best at his position who ever lived.
"Yeah. Growing up - Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, guys of that nature and more - every successful quarterback that was playing when I was coming up, I admired them," Winston said. "Tom Brady, in particular, he is the winningest. He has won more Super Bowls than each of those guys, so to me that is the most important part. His ability to protect the football and take advantage of those opportunities when they are given to him is impeccable. Just studying him, just seeing how calm he is (and) how precise he is, is very impressive. That is the reason why every offseason, every rep I get during the season that I'm trying to be better and better because I know that he's still out there playing.
"He's still getting better and better. He should be an inspiration. Him and Drew Brees and a couple of the older veterans that are still playing to this day are just inspirations for young guys like myself and the other guys coming into the league to continue to work, continue to get better and that's it."
It won't happen often since they play in a different conference, but Winston will get to measure himself against Brady before a national television audience on Thursday night.
Winston was terrific down the stretch, leading the Bucs to 10 points on their final two possessions. He went 5-of-5 for 55 yards in the game-winning drive. It was the fourth, fourth-quarter comeback of Winston's career. It also was the only time Winston has thrown for more than 300 yards with at least three touchdowns and no touchdowns.
The quarterbacks in this game will get much of the attention and rightfully so. But there will be several other players that should factor in the outcome.
The Patriots are throwing the football down the field more than ever, taking advantage of the speed of Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan. Brady is averaging more than nine yards per pass attempt. However, the longer developing routes has exposed him to more punishment.
In three games, the 40-year-old Brady has been sacked 13 times and hit 26 times.
"Yes, I think they've added some speed," said Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith. "Brandin Cooks has been a big addition in terms of creating explosive plays. They've done a nice job schematically getting guys open. Tom (Brady) has done a nice job. He is probably the greatest of all time, or arguably the greatest of all time. He is playing really good football right now and offensively they're hitting on all cylinders."
The good news for the Patriots is that the Bucs have had trouble getting pressure on the quarterback with their front four. Tampa Bay has only one sack and it came in the season-opener against the Bears by defensive end Noah Spence. After forcing three turnovers on defense and one on special teams against Chicago, they have gone two games without a takeaway.
Meanwhile, the Patriots have the worst-ranked defense in the NFL and it's not close. They are allowing 60 yards per game more than any other team in the league. There have been lots of breakdowns in the secondary, especially last week against Carolina.
The Bucs would like to take advantage of that and get wide receiver DeSean Jackson more involved. Jackson has been targeted 20 times in three games and has only nine catches.
"The bottom line is as skill players, they want the ball," said Bucs offensive coordinator/receivers coach Todd Monken. "Let's just say it like it is. Running backs want touches. They want a chance to showcase their abilities. Receivers want the ability to showcase their talents. Quarterbacks want to throw it (and) want a chance to showcase their abilities. But, this isn't baseball where I step into the batter's box and I have my opportunity. This isn't basketball where I can create my own shot. As receivers, you're dependent on a lot of factors to get the ball. You can play really well and catch three balls for 50 yards. And you can play poorly and end up with eight catches for 100 yards and to the naked eye, you think you've had a great game. Bottom line is we've got to do it better (and) we've got to practice it better, so when the opportunities come up, we hit those."