Capitol Gain: Bucs Win Wild Card Game at Washington
Tom Brady threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Washington Football Team, 31-23, in an NFC Wild Card game on Saturday night at FedExField. The Buccaneers will now move on to a Divisional Round game either at New Orleans or at home against the Los Angeles Rams next weekend.

"A lot of guys are enjoying the win, but our work's not done," said offensive tackle Donovan Smith. "For tonight we're going to sit here and enjoy it but we're going to get back to the drawing board for some things we want to correct."

The victory was the franchise's first win in the playoffs since it defeated the Oakland Raiders, 48-21, in Super Bowl XXXVII. It was the second postseason road victory in team history following the game that got the Bucs to that Super Bowl, the 27-10 win at Philadelphia in the 2002 NFC Championship Game. The Buccaneers have now won seven of their nine road games this season.

"It's huge," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "I wish we could play at home, but we can't unless certain things fall. Then I wish the stadium would be packed. Hopefully we'll play better next week than we did this week."

The Buccaneers led by just five points early in the fourth quarter but made it a two-score game with nine minutes left on Leonard Fournette's three-yard touchdown run with nine minutes left. Fournette, playing for an injured Ronald Jones, accounted for 132 yards from scrimmage, his highest total of the season. That was the assist QB Tom Brady needed to help crack the NFL's fourth-best scoring defense, as he threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns on 22 of 40 passing.

"It was a tough, hard-nosed game," said Brady. "Washington had a lot of fight in them. We had an opportunity to pull away and just couldn't quite do it. We didn't score enough points in the red area so there's certainly a lot to improve on. But it's great to get a win and figure out who we're playing tomorrow and go from there.

The game was billed as a matchup between Brady and the Bucs' high-powered offense against a Washington defense led by NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young and its star-studded defensive front. However, Brady enjoyed good protection for most of the evening and finished with a passer rating of 104.3.

"They did a great job," said Brady of his offensive linemen. "Those guys played their butts off. Tristan [Wirfs] did a great job, Donnie (Donovan Smith) played a hell of a game. [It's] just a big, aggressive defense and they played well, they played hard. It was a great test for us."

With veteran Alex Smith sidelined, Washington turned to fourth-year quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who had one career regular-season start and no previous playoff experience. Heinicke kept the Football Team in the game by completing 26 of 44 passes for 306 yards, one touchdown and one interception. His 11-yard touchdown pass to WR Steven Sims pulled Washington to within five points with 4:32 remaining, but Ryan Succop hit the last of his four field goals with two minutes to go and a Lavonte David sack squashed Washington's last hope on offense.

Brady got a lot of help from WR Mike Evans, who played just six days after suffering a knee injury in the regular-season finale against Atlanta. Evans caught six passes for 119 yards, setting a new single-game postseason receiving record for the Buccaneers. Cameron Brate added 80 yards on four catches, the second-most receiving yards by a tight end in franchise history.

"I'm just super-excited about the win," said Brate. "We didn't play our best game but I thought Washington really played us well. Offensively, they made a bunch of plays. Defensively, they presented us with a big challenge, obviously, with the guys they had up front. We didn't play our best game but at this point in the year, a win's a win, so we're pretty fired up about that."

The Bucs' defense, which racked up 48 sacks during the regular season, didn't put as much pressure on Heinicke as it had hoped, sacking him just twice. Heinicke also escaped pressure and ran for 46 yards and a touchdown on six scrambles.

"He was very elusive," said Arians. "We knew he was going to scramble around, there were going to be bootlegs and scrambles. We were really hoping for Alex, because we knew that part of the game wouldn't be in there. He made a lot of really good plays and showed some poise.

The Bucs did get one takeaway of Heinicke, with ILB Kevin Minter tipping a first-quarter pass that led to Sean Murphy-Bunting's diving interception at the Buccaneers' 42-yard line. Brady completed the ensuing drive with a 36-yard touchdown pass to WR Antonio Brown. Brady later hit WR Chris Godwin on a 27-yard scoring pass in the second quarter and the Buccaneers never trailed in the game.

"I believe we scored the possession after [his interception], so we went up early in the game," said Murphy-Bunting. "It was kind of just the spark that we needed. We started off kind off slow, both sides of the ball really, and that spark kind of got us some points on the board, kind of got us some points going into the half and that's what we really needed."

The Buccaneers got the ball first to start the game and got moving quickly with a 15-yard comebacker by Evans that had a facemask penalty tacked on the end to take it out to the Bucs' 49. Two Leonard Fournette runs got 15 yards and a first down on the other half of the field. A skinny post to Godwin got 17 yards down into the Washington red zone. The Bucs faced a third-and-three at the Washington 11 after an impressive seven-yard run by Fournette, but Brady was forced to throw it away on third down and Ryan Succop came on to drill a 29-yard field goal for an early 3-0 Buccaneers lead.

Washington's first drive started out with a four-yard loss as Barrett got penetration on the left side and dropped Gibson for a loss of four. The Football Team was unable to recover and had to punt it away from its 25. Tress Way's 50-yard punt helped push the Bucs back to their own 31. Godwin fought for a first down on a 12-yard second-down catch to begin the next drive and two Fournette runs made it third-and-four at the Bucs' 47. A delay of game pushed it back to third-and-nine, and CB Kendall Fuller was able to break up the pass on another comebacker by Evans.

Washington's second drive began at its own 14. The Football Team quickly found itself in a third-and-six but WR Cam Sims worked into a wide-open spot down the right side for a gain of 36 yards. However, after S Antoine Winfield, Jr. dropped RB Antonio Gibson for a loss of one, blitzing ILB Kevin Minter tipped a second-down pass, resulting in a floater that Murphy-Bunting dived to catch for an impressive interception at the Tampa Bay 42.

Brady converted an early third-and-10 with a laser to WR Scotty Miller for 15 yards to the Washington 39 and two Ke'Shawn Vaughn runs made it third-and-three at the 36. Brady faked a handoff to Vaughn on third down and then found a wide-open Brown down the right sideline for a 36-yard touchdown to make it 9-0, as Succop's extra point attempt was blocked.

The Football Team got its next drive off to a great start when Heinicke was flushed out of the pocket but managed to get off a 24-yard pass to TE Logan Thomas. On the next play, Heinicke zipped a dart down the left seam to McLaurin for another 18 yards to get the ball across midfield. Two plays later, Heinicke ducked out of a near-sack and scrambled for a first down at the Bucs' 21 to bring the first quarter to an end. After the teams switched sides, the Bucs forced a third-and-eight but Heinicke got off a heave under pressure to Sims for 10 yards and a first down at the nine. Three plays later, McKissic took a handoff on a drawn and sliced over right guard for a two-yard touchdown.

Washington apparently tried to catch the Buccaneers off guard with an onside kick attempt but OLB Anthony Nelson fell on it at the Tampa Bay 39. An end-around to Brown got 22 yards to the Washington 39. A run and a catch by Fournette made it third-and-three and Brady went back to Fournette on his third-down drop-back to get five more and a first down at the 27. On the very next play, Godwin went in motion into the right slot and ran a flag route with Brady hitting him for the 27-yard touchdown. The Bucs went for two but failed when Fournette tripped before getting across the line on an underneath handoff.

Washington started its next drive at the 25 and converted a third-and-five with a slant to Sims that got just enough with Jamel Dean in tight coverage. After an 11-yard run around left end by Gibson, Washington got into Bucs territory on an eight-yard catch by McLaurin. The Bucs then forced a third-and-nine at their own 41 and CB Carlton Davis made a diving pass break-up in front of Sims to force a punt. It was fair caught by Jaydon Mickens at the 13.

Two Fournette runs started off the ensuing drive with 12 yards and a first down. A well-designed screen to Fournette on the next play was good for 22 yards to the Bucs' 47 and Brady then found TE Cameron Brate for 19 yards down the right side to the Washington 34. Two plays later, Brate got open running right to left and Brady found him for another 24 yards down to the seven. Washington CB Ronald Darby made an impressive pass break-up on a second-down slant to Godwin and TE Rob Gronkowski couldn't get his feet down in the back of the end zone on third down. The Bucs settled for Succop's 23-yard field goal and an 18-7 lead with 1:50 left in the first half.

On the first play of Washington's next drive, OLB Anthony Nelson dropped Heinicke for a six-yard sack. The ball came loose and was apparently recovered by the Bucs but Heinicke was ruled down and a replay review didn't change that. The Bucs' defense still got a third-and-out and the resulting punt gave it back to Tampa Bay's offense at the 26 with 90 seconds left in the half.

A 13-yard Brown catch got it to the 39 but the drive stalled after that. Brady's next two passes were incomplete and he was sacked by Montez Sweat after a long time in the pocket on third down. Bradley Pinion's ensuing punt rolled to a stop at the Washington 10 with 30 seconds to go. The Football Team ran three plays before the half came to an end.

Washington got the ball to start the second half, opening at their own 30 after a 31-yard kickoff return by Danny Johnson. Heinicke found McLaurin for a 12-yard gain out to the left against a Bucs blitz, and two plays later dropped a 29-yarder into a hole on the left sideline to Thomas. Tampa Bay's defense held at that point, although S Jordan Whitehead missed an opportunity for an interception on third down. The Football Team turned that into a 36-yard field goal by Dustin Hopkins.

Tampa Bay's offense got nothing going with its first drive of the second half. After a three-and-out, Pinion's punt bounced out of bounds at the Washington 42. The Bucs' defense responded with a three-and-out of its own, keyed by a Jason Pierre-Paul pass break-up, and the resulting punt led to a bizarre sequence. Washington S Troy Apke thought the bouncing kick had glanced off Tampa Bay's Ryan Smith and he ran the loose ball into the end zone. Since the ball did not touch Smith, Apke's play resulted in a touchback.

The Bucs faced a third-and-eight moments later but Evans ran a sharp out route and slid to the ground for a 13-yard catch. A deep shot to Evans two plays later went off his hand but Brady converted a third down with a 14-yard strike to Brate. Unfortunately, Vaughn fumbled at the end of a six-yard run on the next play and Washington recovered at its own 39.

The next Football Team drive started out with a 19-yard out to Sims and two plays later Heinicke scrambled for 13 yards. Murphy-Bunting drew a horse-collar flag on the next play to put the ball at the Bucs' 13-yard line. Three plays later, on third-and-goal from the five, Heinicke escaped what seemed like a sure sack, scrambled to the left and dived with a full extension to hit the pylon for a touchdown. Washington went for two and a tie but failed.

The Bucs' next drive started with a surprising drop by Godwin, but Brady found Brate again on third down for a gain of 23 yards to the Washington 45. The last play of the third quarter was a 17-yard completion to Evans down to the 23. After an eight-yard run by Fournette and a five-yard sack by Jonathan Allen, Brady threw incomplete on third down and the Bucs settled for Succop's 38-yard field goal and a five-point lead with 13:32 left in regulation.

Tampa Bay's defense followed with a three-and-out keyed by pressures from Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Jason Pierre-Paul. The Football Team's punt was downed at the Bucs' 31. The Bucs' offense came out firing on the next drive. Brady found a sliding Evans for 17 yards down the right side and Fournette found a seam up the middle for 17 more to the Washington 32. An end-around to Miller got eight more and Fournette powered up the middle for a first down at the 22.

On the next play, Brady moved up in the pocket to buy time and zipped a 19-yard pass to Evans for a first-and-goal at the three. The Bucs chose to throw on first down and seemed to get a touchdown on a quick throw to Brate, but the play was reviewed and ruled an incompletion. That was a minor delay as Fournette ran over left guard for a three-yard touchdown on the next play for a 28-16 lead with nine minutes remaining in regulation.

Heinicke, who went to the locker room to check on an injured left shoulder during the Bucs' previous possession, returned to hit Sims for 23 yards to the Bucs' 40. Four plays later, McLaurin made a leaping catch for 16 yards and a first down at the Bucs' 11. Lavonte David's leaping tip of a second-down pass made it third-and-10 but Washington stayed alive when Heinicke threw a perfect 11-yard out to Sims for a touchdown.

Two plays into the ensuing drive, Brady corraled a low snap and lobbed a perfect pass down the left sideline to Evans for 38 yards. A sack by Daron Payne put the Bucs into a third-and-18 at the Washington 35 and a 16-yard catch-and-run by Godwin put the Bucs close enough for Succop's fourth field goal, a 37-yarder that just snuck inside the left upright to make it an eight-point game with three minutes left.

Washington quickly took the next drive into Bucs territory on catches of 16 yards by McLaurin and 10 by Sims. David put the Football Team into a do-or-die situation with a third-down sack of Heinicke for 11 yards, making it fourth-and-21 from the Washington 20 at the two-minute warning. The Bucs' defense pressured Heinicke into a desperation throw down the right sideline and it was batted down to force a turnover on downs.

Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 10 January 2021