Bucs reach their fourth championship game in franchise history
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are headed to the NFC Championship Game for the first time in 18 years after using four critical takeaways to defeat the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, 30-20, in a Divisional Playoff Game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Interceptions by Sean Murphy-Bunting and Devin White and a fumble recovery by White all led to Tampa Bay touchdowns as the Bucs avenged two regular-season losses to the South division winners.

"It was all a team effort," said White after the game. "I think the number-one thing is, [Defensive Coordinator] Todd Bowles said we were going to be feisty. We're going to challenge those guys, and he was going to take us over them. I said the same thing. I said, 'I'm going to take my guys over their guys.' Because I know one thing, we might be young but we can get after it when we've got our mind set to it."

The Buccaneers will take on the Green Bay Packers in the conference title game next Sunday, January 24, at Lambeau Field. The winner will earn a spot in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. If that winner is the Buccaneers, they will become the first team ever to play in a Super Bowl on their home field. That potential bit of history wasn't on the Bucs' minds on Sunday night, though, as they celebrated a huge win over a familiar and imposing opponent.

"It feels great, obviously, to beat a great football team," said QB Tom Brady, who will follow up his noteworthy battle with Drew Brees with another one against Green Bay superstar Aaron Rodgers. "That's what feels best. It's a team effort, and it just speaks to the commitment level of everybody in the organization – the coaches, the players, everyone coming together. ... For us going into this week, we had to play a great game, and our defense stepped up and played huge. Like I said, the offensive line was incredible. It was just a hard-fought game, a very physical game. We'll need to get our rest the next couple games and be ready to go for practice on Wednesday."

The difference in the game was the takeaways. During the regular season, New Orleans beat the Buccaneers by scores of 34-23 in Week One and 38-3 in Week Nine while winning the turnover battle, plus-four, and scoring 31 points off those takeaways to none for the Buccaneers. In Sunday's third chapter, the Buccaneers had the only four takeaways of the game and a plus-21 scoring margin on turnovers.

Murphy-Bunting's second-quarter interception off Drew Brees led to Brady's three-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans and a 10-6 Tampa Bay lead. White's recovery of a Jared Cook fumble caused by rookie S Antoine Winfield in the third quarter led to Brady's six-yard scoring pass to RB Leonard Fournette. And White's interception with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter allowed the Buccaneers to increase their lead from three points to 10 when Brady finished the ensuing drive with a one-yard QB sneak. S Mike Edwards then ended the Saints' last chance at a comeback with an interception of a tipped ball with four minutes to play.

Winfield's strip of Cook was the game's biggest momentum changer. The Saints led by seven points at the time and were driving to try to make it a two-score game late in third quarter. "It really was [a game-changer], and I can't say enough about him," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "To me, he's the Defensive Rookie of the Year."

Brady took advantage of those takeaways in a game that was understandably billed as a rare postseason showdown between the top two passers in league history in terms of yards and touchdowns. It was also the first playoff meeting between two starting quarterbacks beyond the age of 40. Brady ended up with the upper hand, completing 18 of 33 passes for 199 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His game-sealing TD sneak gave him three total scores on the day. His leadership – next week will mark his 14th conference championship game – is clearly important to a team with a lot of young players at its core.

"The job's still not finished yet," said White. "It was never about finishing [with] just beating the Saints. It was always about getting to the bigger goal. Tom preached that and Tom is a winner, and I'm glad to be playing under his leadership."

Brady was supported by an outstanding two-headed rushing attack, with Fournette gaining 63 yards on the ground and another 44 on five catches and Ronald Jones adding 62 rushing yards. That helped give more time on drop-backs for Brady, who was sacked just one time and hit only three times. Overall, Tampa Bay's offensive line delivered a second strong playoff outing against a very good defense, this time with third-year man Aaron Stinnie stepping in at right guard for the injured Alex Cappa.

"Tom was clean most of the day," said Arians. "I thought we did a really good job protecting the football, not talking any chances. Aaron Stinnie played his tail off; knew he would. He's been around now for a year-and-a-half, two years. He's a good little player."

Saints return man Deonte Harris threatened to put the game away early when he ran for 54 and 67 yards on his first two punt returns in the opening period. However, the Buccaneers' defense held after the first long runback, allowing only a field goal, and the second one was nullified by a block-in-the-back penalty. The Bucs' defense held Brees and the Saints to field goals on each of their first two scoring opportunities, which allowed Brady and the offense to rally for a 10-6 lead in the second quarter.

"Going into this game, we just knew it was going to be a battle," said Murphy-Bunting. "Whether it was going to be an offensive battle or a defensive battle, we knew it was going to be a battle. We knew it was going to be a close game. With the anticipation going into this game, we just knew we had to fight. We couldn't rely on Tom to just put up points, put up points, put up points. We had to hold up our end."

The Saints took the lead back on a trick play that involved a handoff and a lateral to former Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston, who launched a 56-yard touchdown pass to WR Tre'Quan Smith, who was just activated from injured reserve this week. Smith also caught a 16-yard pass from Brees in the third quarter that gave the Saints their final points of the game, but overall the Bucs held the Saints' Hall of Fame-bound quarterback to just 134 passing yards. Brees was intercepted three times in a game for the first time since the 2016 season.

The Buccaneers also held wide receiver Michael Thomas without a catch for the first time in his NFL career, spanning 77 games over the regular season and the postseason combined. Murphy-Bunting and fellow cornerback Carlton Davis both fought through injuries during the game but were able to come up with big plays as the Bucs broke up eight of Brees' 34 passes. Murphy-Bunting said the Buccaneers came into the game determined to take an aggressive approach against Brees and company.

"Guys were out there flying around from the first quarter to the fourth quarter," said Murphy-Bunting. "There wasn't any hesitation in between. Usually we start games slow and we've got to pick it up and fight back. It was just different. It was a different atmosphere, it was a different unit, it was a different team. Everybody was together. We came into this game knowing that we could win the game.

After falling behind early, the Buccaneers faced a fourth-and-one at their own 34-yard line with three minutes left in the first quarter. Despite only trailing by six points, Arians chose to go for it and Brady moved the sticks with his patented QB sneak. The Bucs finished that drive with the first of Ryan Succop's three field goals on three tries.

"I had a lot of confidence that we'd get it done," said Arians. "Tom does a really good job on that stuff and got us in the right [spot]. We had a couple plays called and he had the sneak if he wants."

The game was tied, 13-13, at halftime as neither offense found a groove in the first two quarters. The Saints had 171 yards of offense, 56 coming on the Winston trick-play touchdown to Smith, as Brees was held to 63 yards on 10 completions to that point. Brady had just 93 passing yards at the half and the Buccaneers' only touchdown march was a one-play, three-yard drive after Murphy-Bunting's interception. Brady tried a number of deep passes including one to Evans in the first quarter that was knocked away by Marshon Lattimore and one just before halftime that Godwin couldn't quite hold onto as he landed on his back in the back of the end zone.

The Saints opened the second half with a methodical, 75-yard touchdown drive, then got the ball back quickly after a failed Bucs possession, with a chance to put the visitors in a big hole. Instead, Winfield forced the fumble by Cook and the Buccaneers never looked back.

The win in New Orleans improved the Bucs to 13-5 on the season, marking the second-most victories they've had in one campaign. The only season with more Tampa Bay victory celebrations was the 2002 campaign that ended in the Super Bowl XXXVII title, the 15th win of the year for that club. The Buccaneers face a tall task in Green Bay to get back to the Super Bowl for a second time, but their rousing win in New Orleans put them one step closer to another championship.

Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 18 January 2021