Epic Win at Lambeau Sends Bucs to Super Bowl LV
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made history Sunday in one of the league's most venerable venues, setting up the most unique homecoming of the Super Bowl era.
The Buccaneers defeated the Green Bay Packers, 31-26, on Sunday in a 2020 NFC Championship Game thriller at Lambeau Field, earning a spot in Super Bowl LV. That game will be played at Raymond James Stadium on February 7, making the Buccaneers the first team ever to play in a Super Bowl on their own home field.
"We've had a lot of people work really hard over a period of time to get to this point," said quarterback Tom Brady, who threw three touchdown passes in the win and will now play in his 10th Super Bowl, extending his own NFL record. "It's a tough journey to get here. To win another road playoff game is just a great achievement, and now a home Super Bowl for the first time in NFL history puts a lot of cool things in perspective. Anytime you're the first time doing something, it's usually a pretty cool thing."
Tampa Bay is also just the fifth team to make it to the Super Bowl with three consecutive road playoff wins. Including their post-bye week run in the regular season, the Buccaneers have won seven straight as they head into the Super Bowl.
"We were at 7-5 seven weeks ago, not feeling great," said Brady. "We felt like we needed to find our rhythm. We played four great games down the stretch the last quarter of the season, and then after that it was just all bonus and we just had to go play well. We played well in Washington, played well all the way around in New Orleans against a great football team and then came up here knowing that we needed to play great. The guys came through, everybody stepped up to the challenge. Football's the ultimate team sport and it takes everybody. Everybody plays a role and I'm just so proud of this whole team. I'm just blessed to be a part of it."
The last of those three road victories was a nail-biter to the end, with the five-point victory not secured until a critical goal-to-go stop against the NFL's best red zone offense and a six-yard end-around by Chris Godwin to kill the final seconds on the clock and keep the ball out of Aaron Rodgers' hands.
Brady's three touchdown passes, which set a new single-game Buccaneer playoff record, included a 39-yarder to Scotty Miller with one second left in the first half to help the Buccaneers take a 21-10 lead into halftime. Brady's third TD toss was an eight-yarder to TE Cameron Brate one minute into the second half after Jordan Whitehead forced a fumble by Green Bay RB Aaron Jones. The Bucs took an 18-point lead and then hung on for dear life as Rodgers threw a pair of touchdown passes and got his team into position for a potential game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
"The resiliency of the crew, the defense just gritted their teeth and got it back for us, and then we made some big, big plays," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "Chris made the big play at the end and a couple other big plays on first-down plays."
The Packers led the NFL with an 80.0% touchdown rate on red zone drives in 2020, the best mark by any NFL team since at least the 2000 season. However, the Buccaneers got one big stop on first-and-goal in the second quarter and a much bigger one at the game's end. Andrew Adams, in for an injured Whitehead, broke up a third-down pass intended for Davante Adams in the end zone and the Packers elected to go for a field goal down by eight with just over two minutes left.
Obviously, Green Bay was banking on getting the ball back one more time but the Bucs were able to run out the clock thanks to a key third-down pass interference penalty drawn by rookie WR Tyler Johnson on CB Kevin King, plus Godwin's third-down run. That pass interference flag came at the end of a game that featured almost no penalties; neither team drew a single flag in the first half and the two squads combined for just six penalties for 38 yards.
Brady kneeled down one final time after Godwin's run and the Bucs had the second Halas Trophy as NFC champs in team history. Now the 2020 squad will try to match the 2002 team that won Super Bowl XXXVII for the franchise's first title. It didn't feel real for Arians until the very end. "I guess when I was holding the Halas Trophy," said Arians of when he realized the weight of the Bucs' accomplishment. "It was like, 'Oh, my gosh, we're actually going to do it.' We can dream about looking across the street for two weeks."
The Buccaneers scored on the game's opening possession and never trailed, though the Packers did tie it at 7-7 in the second period. Brady's 15-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans converted a third-and-seven, the third third down on that march, and the Bucs finished with nine conversions in 14 attempts on the day, plus one successful fourth-down attempt.
After Rodgers' 50-yard touchdown pass to WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling tied the game, the Buccaneers went back on top on an incredible 20-yard touchdown run by Leonard Fournette that included multiple broken tackles and spin moves. Godwin set up that score with an act of will on a 52-yard leap-ball catch, part of his five-catch, 110-yard day.
An interception by CB Sean Murphy-Bunting gave the Buccaneers a chance to score again before halftime and Arians coached the situation extremely aggressively. First he went for it on fourth-and-four at the Green Bay 45 with 13 seconds to go, with Brady converting on a quick toss to Fournette, then he eschewed a quick pass and a field goal attempt to go deep to Miller. Arians initially sent out the punt team on fourth down but then called a timeout and went for the jugular.
"We didn't come here to not take chances to win the game," said Arians. "With the timeout and then the interception, I wanted to come out of there with points. I loved the play we had, got a great matchup and the touchdown. I thought it was huge."
Miller said the Bucs originally thought the final play of the first half would be a Hail Mary but the Packers' defensive alignment led them to adjust to a more direct approach. Miller had man-to-man coverage on the left side and the defensive back was playing relatively tight.
"That play was an awesome play," said Miller. "The coach made a great decision going for it there. Tom put a great ball on me like he always does. It was just a special moment. I don't know if I could have dreamed about it as a kid. The coaches told us, [Offensive Coordinator] Byron [Leftwich] told us all week we were going to be aggressive, we were going to be aggressive, we were going to go at them, we were going to take chances with the guys we've got. That's what we do."
Turnovers helped the Buccaneers forge their 18-point lead but three straight second-half drives ended in interceptions on Brady passes meant for Evans, forcing the Tampa Bay defense to work extra hard to hold onto the lead. Fortunately, edge rushers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul combined for five sacks of Rodgers, matching the most times the Packers QB had been dropped all season. Barrett tied Warren Sapp's single-game postseason sack record with 3.0 of his own; Sapp's record also came at Lambeau Field against Brett Favre in the 1997 playoffs.
"We knew that Aaron Rodgers was going to give us a chance to get to him and he was going to try to make the big play," said Barrett. "So our secondary did a great job of holding them up, taking away his first and second read and we were able to get there.
"It was big for us. We knew there was no better time to be great, no better time to be the defense that we want to be right now. We just took the challenge. We knew our offense was going to do what they needed to do. When we need help, they bail us out. When they need help, we bail them out. That's why we're playing so well right now."
That secondary was a bit depleted by game's end. The Bucs were playing without standout rookie safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. due to an ankle injury, and Whitehead left the game in the third quarter with a shoulder injury after a hard hit on RB Jamaal Williams. Mike Edwards and Andrew Adams played much of the game at the back end of the defense. Tampa Bay's secondary has now played a key role in limiting two of the NFL's best offenses in New Orleans and Green Bay in back-to-back weeks.
"I think, really, Sean [Murphy-]Bunting started it in the first playoff game getting a pick, kind of setting the tone in our DB room," said Whitehead. "Then he got one last week, and now everybody's like, 'We gotta catch up with Sean, gotta catch up with Sean. I think coming into this game we just had confidence. Coming off last week, being underdogs again, just put a chip on our shoulders."
Murphy-Bunting's interception was his third in as many games and he is the first player in franchise history to pick off a pass in three straight playoff games. He is also just the fourth player in NFL history to intercept a pass in each of his first three postseason outings, joining Aeneas Williams, Ed Reed and Jason Sehorn.
"Sean played that thing perfectly," said Arians. "I thought he was going to get another one later when they hit that same ball on him. But Sean has been playing outstanding. He's got all his confidence back, as the whole secondary does, and should because they're playing really, really well."
The Buccaneers will now have two weeks to prepare for the Chiefs, and they won't have to make any additional travel plans for the big game. Next up is Super Bowl LV in their very own home. The Buccaneers will fly back to Tampa on what will surely be a raucous flight Sunday evening, and they won't have to leave home again this season.
"It's crazy that we're the first team to do it, making history," said Barrett. "But that's not the way history has to end. We can be the first team to win it as well. We've got to get back ready to work, but it's crazy. It's never been done before and we're doing it. It's an amazing feeling. I'm happy to be a part of it."
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 25 January 2021