Defense rules as Bucs finally break through vs. Saints
Drew Brees looked ready for the gold watch. But retirement isn't on the mind of Tom Brady, who continues to seek a seventh Super Bowl ring. The storyline of Sunday's NFC division playoff game was two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks likely meeting for the last time.

But it was the Bucs' defense that made all the biggest plays in the Bucs' 30-20 win over the Saints. There was inside linebacker Devin White, with 11 tackles, a fumble recovery and one of the Bucs' three interceptions of Brees.

There was cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, getting things started when he stepped in front of a pass to Michael Thomas and returned the pick 36 yards to the New Orleans 3-yard line. There was safety Mike Edwards, sealing the deal with his fourth-quarter interception off a deflected pass.

The victory advanced the Bucs (13-5) to their fourth NFC Championship game in club history. They will play the Packers Sunday at Lambeau Field. "It's jamming pretty good right now," coach Bruce Arians said after leaving the Bucs' locker room. "I don't have any dance moves, so I'm not in there right now. It was great just to see Devin make those plays, and that's what he's capable of making. Everybody criticized him, saying he can't cover anybody. I think he just proved he can."

Brees, who celebrated his 42nd birthday Friday and is expected to retire and join NBC Sports next year, passed for 134 yards and one touchdown with three interceptions. Meanwhile, the 43-year-old Brady let his young defense do all the heavy lifting and produced three touchdowns off those turnovers. He threw touchdown passes to Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette while rushing for another score.

"They were incredible, and this team has been doing that all year at different times," said Brady, who passed for 199 yards and two touchdowns. "The defense has picked us up, some weeks the offense has performed a little bit better. Special teams have been so consistent. The way the defense played today, they were spectacular."

The Bucs really made only two bad plays all day. They allowed a 54-yard punt return to Deonte Harris to start the game. They also watched former Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston come off the bench and turn a trick play into a 56-yard TD pass to Tre'Quan Smith to give the Saints a 13-10 lead. Smith's 16-yard touchdown reception from Brees on the first drive to start the second half made it 20-13 Saints.

But Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles kept playing press, man-to-man coverage on the Saints receivers and some of the blitzes rattled Brees, who was forced out of the pocket. "I think the No. 1 thing is Todd Bowles said we were going to be feisty," White said. "We were going to challenge those guys.

"He's said he's going to take us over them. I know we might be young, but we can get after it when we get our mindset to it. Everybody was saying, where's the Tampa Bay defense from the Green Bay game? We were really feisty and challenging them at the line of scrimmage and really getting after the quarterback, and we had the same mentality (Sunday)."

The Bucs held Thomas to no catches on only four targets. It was a blitzing White that forced Brees to throw early, and Murphy-Bunting nearly scored with the interception. When Brady connected with Evans in the end zone on the next play, the Bucs receiver started throwing imaginary punches. The fight was on.

The Bucs hadn't just lost twice to the Saints, they had been dominated by them. Five of Brady's 12 interceptions came against New Orleans. The Nov. 8 game was humiliating. They trailed 31-0 and then lost 38-3. Put this in perspective. Brady left the Patriots after 20 seasons, and with no offseason or preseason games, led the Bucs to a 13-5 record and the fourth conference championship game in club history.

"I'm really proud of our team to get to this point," Brady said. "There's only four teams left. We're one of them. And it's tough to get to this point. We've got one of the best team's in the league, obviously, in Green Bay. The top seed and Aaron (Rodgers) is playing incredible. They've got a great defense, so it's going to be a great matchup."

Everybody thought Brady would have to outduel Brees in this game. But it was the Bucs' young defense that had to out-perform a Saints defense considered the best in the NFL. "We'd been fighting adversity all year," Murphy-Bunting said. "We've been battling the naysayers and those who say we can't do things. At the end of the day, we're all fighters. We wanted to make sure this wasn't our last (game)."

It's hard to imagine, but history awaits the Bucs in Green Bay. They are 60 minutes away from Super Bowl 55, from becoming the first team to play for a Lombardi Trophy in their own stadium. The Bucs trailed the Packers 10-0 on Oct. 18 before scoring 38 unanswered points. It was a pick-six by Jamel Dean that got it started.

But the Packers have the presumptive NFL MVP in Rodgers. The forecast is for 24 degrees and snow at Lambeau Field. "You've just got to have some mental toughness and wear some warm clothes and be ready to go," Brady said. "Yeah, it's chilly, man. That's January football in the northeast, (the) midwest. We'll be prepared. The team that plays the best is going to win, not the team that's the coldest."

Rick Stroud, Tampa Bay Times, published 18 January 2021