Around the NFC South: Winston replaced by Fitzpatrick


Seven games into the season, Buccaneers quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick have attempted and completed a nearly identical number of passes.

But Winston has completed twice as many to the opposing teams. That's why the Panthers will face Fitzpatrick on Sunday.

"Both guys have had their moments when they've been extremely sharp," Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter said at his Monday press conference. "But this really is just about we have to do a better job of protecting the football."

Fitzpatrick will return to the starting role he held for the first three games when Winston was serving a suspension. Fitzpatrick became the first quarterback in NFL history to post three consecutive 400-yard passing games, but in his third start he threw three first-half interceptions against the Steelers to increase his season total to five.

That performance and that loss – Tampa's first after a surprising 2-0 start – opened the door for Winston to return to what was assumed to be the former No. 1 overall pick's starting role at the beginning of the season. The Buccaneers lost at the Bears and Falcons in Winston's first two starts, then they beat the Browns in overtime despite Winston tossing two interceptions to bring his season total to six (versus five touchdowns).

Last week against the Bengals was the last straw - for now. Winston tossed his fourth interception late in the third quarter that was returned for a touchdown to push Cincinnati's lead to 34-16, after which Fitzpatrick was inserted into the lineup and nearly brought Tampa Bay all the way back.

"We're going to start Fitz at quarterback this week. That's what we feel we need to do this week to give ourselves the best chance," Koetter said. "Very rarely is switching quarterbacks forever. … Jameis will get another chance at some point.

"When he does, he just needs to do a better job of taking care of the football."

This is a big potential swing game for Tampa's fortunes. Lose, and the Bucs (3-4) drop three games behind the Panthers (5-2) at the halfway point. Win, and they're just one game behind Carolina.

And the Panthers aren't even in first place in the NFC South. That spot still belongs to the Saints (6-1), who had 48 points hung on them at home by Fitzpatrick and Co. in Week 1 but haven't lost since. Coming off an impressive victory at the Vikings, New Orleans faces an even taller task this week though it is at home against the unbeaten Rams – the league's lone unbeaten.

While Tampa has slid to 3-4, Atlanta has scratched and clawed its way up to 3-4 with consecutive victories. The Falcons can further re-insert themselves back in the race with a victory Sunday against a Browns team that fired its head coach and offensive coordinator Monday.