The New Orleans Saints won the toss and deferred, putting the ball in the hands of Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady to start the game.
The Buccaneers opened with a handoff to running back Leonard Fournette that got them a couple. A completion to tight end Cam Brate would give the Bucs third and short when Brady would air it out for tight end Rob Gronkowski. The ball went just off his fingertips and the Bucs were forced to punt.
New Orleans, in turn, started off hot immediately with a 54-yard punt return by Deonte Harris that put the Saints well into Buccaneer territory. A questionable personal foul penalty on Jordan Whitehead would gift New Orleans with first and goal but the defense would stand up and hold them to a field goal, making the score 3-0 with 11:30 left in the first quarter.
The Bucs would suffer another three-and-out after a big sack of Brady on third down and six. The punt was returned yet again by Deonte Harris, who took it all the way to the end zone before a flag on New Orleans for an illegal block in the back brought the ball back to the 30-yard line.
It was a long drive for New Orleans, spanning 12 plays for 46 yards over 5:07 but they were stalled at the 24-yard line, thanks in part to a third-down pass breakup at the line by outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul. The Saints settled for another field goal kick, this one from 42, to make the score 6-0 with 4:39 remaining in the opening quarter.
Tampa Bay spanned the length of the field on their next drive and were able to finally get into Saints' territory. They'd get as far as New Orleans' eight-yard line before stalling. Kicker Ryan Succop was good from 26 yards and the Bucs' cut the Saints' lead in half, 6-3, with 12:57 left in the second quarter.
The Saints started driving yet again but this time, they wouldn't be able to capitalize with any points because cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting got his head around in coverage and picked off Drew Brees. He returned the ball almost all the way to the end zone but was marked out at the three-yard line. The first play on offense was a dart to wide receiver Mike Evans in the end zone and the Bucs took the lead, 10-6, with 11:16 left in the second quarter.
The lead was short-lived as the Saints decided to pull some trickery on their next drive. Former Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston checked in and it was Kamara that took a direct snap. He handed the ball off to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who then pitched it to Winston, who THEN threw it 56 yards down the field to Tre'Quan Smith for the touchdown. It put the Saints back up 13-10 halfway through the second quarter.
The Bucs took over but sputtered on the next drive and would end up punting again, surrendering the ball back to the Saints with six and a half minutes left on the lock.
This time, the defense would force another Saints punt before they could do much. They got the ball back to the Bucs offense with two and a half minutes to work with before the half.
The Bucs' offense made it down the field but was stalled after a false start penalty. Brady almost had Godwin in the end zone on second down and 15 at the Saints' 29-yard line but the ball popped out as Godwin hit the ground. Third and 15 and Brady got some more yards thanks to Brate, who got the Bucs as far as the New Orleans' 19. From there, Succop kicked the 37-yard field goal and the two teams went into the half tied at 13.
It took over five minutes and 10 plays but the Saints spanned 75 yards on their opening drive of the second half. It ended with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Tre'Quan Smith for his second of the night, giving the Saints a 20-13 lead with 9:43 left in the third.
The Bucs wouldn't be able to answer and instead went three-and-out on their next drive. They took a couple minutes off the clock though and surrendered the ball to New Orleans with just under seven minutes left in the third quarter.
Tampa Bay's defense would come through yet again on the next drive. Just as the Saints were gaining some momentum, Brees hit tight end Jared Cook over the middle who took off with the ball. Rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who had just barely missed an interception on the previous play, then punched the ball out of Cook's hands where it was then recovered by inside linebacker Devin White. He returned it 18 yards, setting the Bucs up in prime scoring position.
It would take a few plays but the Bucs' offense was then able to punch it in on third and five from from the six-yard line as Brady hit Fournette for the touchdown, tying the game back at 20 with two and a half minutes left in the third quarter.
Despite yet another questionable call that went the Saints' way, the Buccaneer defense stood tall on the next drive. They forced New Orleans to punt thanks to back-to-back pass breakups by Jamel Dean and Ross Cockrell. The Bucs' offense got the ball back with just 44 seconds remaining in the third.
They put together a very well-balanced drive thanks to Jones and a tremendous catch by rookie wide receiver Tyler Johnson and would get as close as the Saints' 18-yard line. They'd have to settle for the field goal, but the 36-yard kick would give the Bucs a 23-20 lead with. 9:52 to go in the game.
The next possession would again end abruptly for the Saints as none other than Devin White got his pick on Brees on second and eight, returning it 28 yards. The Buccaneer offense then capitalized, punching it on a quarterback keeper by Brady to go up 30-20 with 4:57 left in the ball game.
Then, another huge play by the defense as the ball was tipped up in the air on a throw from Brees to Cook and Mike Edwards came down with it. It gave the Bucs back the ball and a couple first downs later, they were able to take a knee three straight times and earn their trip to the NFC Championship with a final score of 30-20 over the Saints in New Orleans.