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.
Additional game details (scoring plays in bold):
The Bucs got the ball first to start the game but failed to pick up a first down. Brady went over the top to Rob Gronkowski deep down the left sideline but the ball was just off the diving tight end's fingertips. On the ensuing punt, return man Deonte Harris bounced off a hit from Jaydon Mickens just as he caught the ball and then found the right sideline for a 54-yard return down to the Bucs' 21-yard line.
White celebrated his return to action with a tackle of Kamara for no gain on the first play but a short pass to Emmanuel Sanders had a personal foul tacked on the end and that made it first and goal at the seven. The Bucs' defense forced the Saints into a third-and-goal and CB Carlton Davis had tight coverage on Thomas, who couldn't stay in bounds on a shallow out just across the line of scrimmage. The Saints settled for Wil Lutz's 23-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead with 4:30 elapsed.
Tampa Bay's second possession went no better, as Brady was sacked by LB Demario Davis on third-and-six, leading to a punt from the 19-yard line. Harris actually took this one all the way to the end zone for an apparent touchdown but most of it was erased by a block-in-the-back penalty. New Orleans ended up with a drive start of their own 30 after the penalty.
A diving pass break-up by CB Sean Murphy-Bunting and another quick tackle by White put the Saints in a quick third-and-11 but Brees fit a 13-yard pass into a well-covered Tre'Quan Smith to keep the drive alive. OLB Jason Pierre-Paul was flagged for tripping Kamara on a run up the middle and Kamara took his next run around left end for 10 yards and a first down at the Bucs' 35. After another first down, the Saints found themselves in a third-and-nine at the Bucs' 24, and OLB Jason Pierre-Paul managed to bat down Brees' third-down pass to force another field goal. Lutz drilled it from 42 yards out for a 6-0 lead.
The Bucs started again at their own 25 and got an eight-yard run by Jones after a first-down incompletion to make it third-and-two. Jones was stopped inches short on third down but the Bucs went for it on fourth down and Brady was able to power for just enough for a first down on a QB sneak up the middle. Fournette came back in to deliver two straight strong runs and a first down, and then Brady went deep down the middle to Evans but Marshon Lattimore was able to bat it away at the last second. Two plays later, on third-and-five after a neutral-zone infraction, Brady threw a quick tunnel screen to Godwin and it was good for a first down at the Saints' 35. The first quarter came to an end on a two-yard Jones run.
The first play of the second period was a sharp 16-yard strike to Brate down to the 17 for a first down. Fournette powered up the middle for six yards and then got three more on second down. Brady tried to get it to Gronkowski at the goal line on third down but S Malcolm Jenkins made a great play to break it up and Ryan Succop came on to hit a 26-yard field goal.
The Saints' next drive started with Kamara powering up the gut for 11 yards. However, two snaps later, Brees was pressured by a White blitz and Murphy-Bunting was able to undercut Thomas and pick the pass off at the Saints' 39. Murphy-Bunting stiff-armed his way out of a Thomas tackle and was able to return it all the way to the three-yard line. The Bucs only needed one play to score from there, with Brady throwing a quick dart to Evans to put the visitors up, 10-6.
The Bucs nearly got a three-and-out on the next Saints drive but a third-down defensive holding call on Murphy-Bunting kept it alive. After a Brees sneak on third-and-one led to another first down at the Saints' 44, New Orleans dug into their bag of tricks to take the lead back on a big play. Winston lined up wide to the right and Kamara took a shotgun snap and then handed it to Sanders, who subsequently flipped it to Winston. Meanwhile, Smith had gotten wide open down the middle and Winston easily hit him for a 56-yard go-ahead score.
Two Jones runs made it third-and-two and Brady tried to hit Brown deep down the right sideline. S Marcus Williams appeared to intercept the pass as he went out of bounds but a review showed that he did not get two feet down. That brought the ball back to the Bucs' 34 and led to a punt that took it down to the Saints' eight with six-and-a-half minutes left in the half.
Two catches by Sanders got the Saints out to their own 40, but a great open-field tackle by Murphy-Bunting on TE Josh Hill made it third-and-11 moments later. Kamara got around the right end on a short catch to make it fourth-and-two at the 48. The Saints left the offense on the field and may have been trying to draw an offside flag, but a flinch by Will Gholston drew a false start penalty and the Saints had to punt. Mickens fair caught it at the Bucs' 18.
A short run and an incompletion through Fournette's hands made it third-and-eight as the two-minute warning arrived. After the break, Fournette caught the next one and turned it up to just get past the sticks. Two plays later, another short pass to Fournette worked out well as he rambled for 14 yards to the Saints' 49. With 54 seconds left, the Bucs called a timeout, facing a third-and-two at the Saints' 41. After the pause, Brady handed to Fournette out of the shotgun and the play was good for seven yards and a first down. Brown caught a 10-yard pass on the right sideline on the next play but didn't get out of bounds and the Bucs used their second timeout with 27 seconds left. A false start by Stinnie pushed the ball back to the 29, and a near touchdown two plays later was not to be when the ball rolled out of Godwin's grasp after a grab in the back of the end zone. Brady found Brate for 10 yards on third-and-15 to make the field goal easier and Succop tied the game with a 37-yard field goal as time expired in the first half.
The Saints got the ball to start the second half and quickly got it close to midfield with a succession of runs and short passes, ending in a third-and-one sneak by Brady to the Saints' 48. Kamara then gashed over right guard for a 17-yard gain to the Bucs' 35. Kamara somehow turned what looked like a loss into a six-yard run by breaking several tackles and Brees found Ty Montgomery over the middle for a 13-yard completion and a first down at the Bucs' 16. Two plays later, Brees lobbed a perfect pass to Smith near the right pylon for the go-ahead touchdown.
The Bucs' answering drive began with a run and a catch by Fournette that moved the chains but the drive then stalled and the ensuing punt was fair caught at the Saints' 16. The Bucs appeared to get a quick stop thanks in part to a White tackle for loss but Murphy-Bunting was flagged for pass interference on third down. S Antione Winfield, Jr. nearly intercepted Brees' next pass, then two plays later he forced a fumble by TE Jared Cook. White scooped up the loose ball and returned it 18 yards to the Saints' 40.
Brady found a wide-open Brate for 19 yards on the very next play and Jones followed with a tough, pile-pushing 10-yard run up the middle, down to the Saints' 11. Three plays later, on third-and-five, Brady found Fournette cutting over the middle and the fourth-year back made a juggling catch as he crossed the goal line to tie the game again with two minutes left in the third quarter.
Once again, the Bucs appeared to get a stop only to see an illegal-use-of-hands call on a third-down completion – this one on Jamel Dean on the other side of the field – keep the drive alive. Fortunately, three plays later the Bucs got quick pressure with a four-man rush and Brady's rushed throw was knocked away by CB Ross Cockrell.
After the Saints' punt, the Bucs started anew at their own 21 with less than a minute left in the third quarter. A hard-charging six-yard run by Jones brought the third quarter to an end. Two plays into the fourth quarter, Jones broke free for what appeared to be a 44-yard run but the play was erased by a holding call on T Tristan Wirfs. The Bucs still managed to keep the drive alive when rookie WR Tyler Johnson made a dazzling, spinning catch on the right sideline for 15 yards on third-and-11. The Bucs faced another third down moments later but WR Scotty Miller ran a sharp out-and-up route and made a great sliding catch between two defenders for 29 yards to the Saints' 31. After a Bucs timeout, Jones ripped off a spin move and a 12-yard run into the red zone. The drive stalled there and Succop came on to give the Bucs' a 23-20 lead on a 36-yard field goal.
The Saints started again at their 25 with just under 10 minutes left in regulation and quickly fell into a third-and-six. Brees hit Sanders on an underneath throw and Sanders was able to fly over a tackle by Winfield to cross the sticks. Two plays later, however, White came up with the Bucs' third takeaway, picking off a pass intended for Kamara and returning it 28 yards down the left sideline to the Saints' 20.
On the second play of the ensuing drive, Brady hit Gronkowski on a deep out and the big tight end stayed inbounds and got all the way down to the Saints' four. Two plays later, Brady kept it on second-and-goal and was able to dive just over the line behind G Ali Marpet. Succop banged the extra point through for a 10-point Bucs lead with five minutes to play.
The Bucs ended the Saints' next drive with their fourth takeaway. After one first down, Brees tried to go down the right sideline to Cook but David kept the tight end from hauling it in and Edwards hauled it in for the pick, just keeping his toes inbounds at the Bucs' 48. The Bucs ran the ball twice with Fournette to drain a couple Saints timeouts and then a quick screen to Godwin was good for 13 yards and a key first down. Fournette then ran the ball three more times, all over left guard, the last one picking up five yards on third-and-three to effectively end the game. Three kneel-downs after the two-minute warning made it official.