Devin White called it a "team effort," and, yeah, you're not winning a Divisional Playoff game on the road against a 13-4 squad without firing on all cylinders. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are headed to the 2020 NFC Championship Game in Green Bay because White, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Leonard Fournette, Mike Evans, Tom Brady, Mike Edwards, Antoine Winfield, Jr., Lavonte David, Ryan Succop, Cameron Brate, the entire offensive line and probably a couple dozen other players all performed at a high level.
It all added up to a 30-20 win over the Saints in New Orleans, an outcome that not only avenged the Bucs' two losses to the Saints during the regular season but also put Tampa Bay into the fourth NFC title game in franchise history. It came in Brady's first year at the helm in Tampa, after two decades with the Patriots, and it's clear that his presence is one of the main reasons the Bucs are still alive. But this one went far beyond the impact of the G.O.A.T.
It's true: This feels like one of the Buccaneers' most "team-effortish" games of the season (I just made that up). But we've been awarding a single Game Ball all season after every Tampa Bay win, and we're not going to stop now.
So who should it be? Let's get together and decide. After every Buccaneers win this season, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and I are nominating one player each for a vote by the fans as to who deserves that week's Game Ball. The fans will then determine the winner in a poll at the bottom of this page, voting either for Carmen's choice or my choice…or if you aren't satisfied with the candidates we put forth, you can choose "other." Since we have decided not to duplicate picks in any given week, we're alternating the order of selection and it's Carmen's turn to go first.
Carmen Vitali: ILB Devin White
Give me Devin White in a grudge-match in his home state any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Though the Bucs only needed one time yesterday to secure their spot in the NFC Championship game as they emerged from New Orleans victorious. And trust me, it was not without a ton of help from White himself. He was playing like a man possessed. Just look at this stat line: 11 tackles (one for loss), an interception, a pass defensed and a fumble recovery. Those 11 tackles tied for the most by a Buccaneers player ever in the postseason. And, according to Andrew Holman of Bucs Communications, White is just the fourth player league-wide since 2000 with over 10 tackles, one interception and one fumble recovery in a postseason game.
What's even more impressive is White called it last week ahead of the game. When asked about the fact that this could be Drew Brees' last game as he nears retirement, White said the usual things you're supposed to say at first: their focus is just on winning the game and advancing to the next round. But then he slipped in a little something extra.
"The number-one thing is, if I beat Drew Brees I go on to the next round, me and my team, we go on to the next round," said White. "But if it is his last game, I do need to get a pick and a sack off him. That's something that I've got to come through, I've got to make a big play off Drew Brees. I need to make a statement game against the Saints this coming Sunday."
White didn't get the sack (no one did because Brees is very good about getting the ball out quickly) but he did get that interception and it could not have come at a better time. It had been a tense back and forth battle all night. The Bucs were clinging to a three-point lead halfway through the fourth quarter and here comes Brees with something to prove – determined to not be done with his season (and potentially his career) just yet. When I tell you we were all on the edge of our seats, I mean it literally and figuratively. Then, on second-and-eight at their own 38-yard line with 7:18 left in the game, White jumped in front of running back Alvin Kamara and picked off Brees, returning it 28 yards to set the Bucs up at the Saints' 20-yard line. The Bucs would get in the end zone four plays later on a Brady quarterback sneak.
Those weren't the only points White was partially responsible for on the night, either. Remember that fumble recovery? In the third quarter, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. punched the ball out of tight end Jared Cook's hands when White recovered and returned it 18 yards. It set the Bucs up at the Saints' 40-yard line and the bonus drive ended on a six-yard pass to running back Leonard Fournette for the touchdown that tied the game at 20.
Arians said it after the game. Brady said it after the game. Countless other players said it after the game: the +4 turnover margin the Bucs recorded was the difference maker and I don't think anyone had a bigger impact on that stat than White. So by the transitive property – no one had a bigger impact on the win that White, change my mind.
Scott Smith: G Ali Marpet
Change your mind, I will not. I will not even try.
I was certain that Carmen would pick White, and I think I probably would have as well if it was my turn to go first. However, I do have a second option that I like a lot and even if you are leaning towards White I ask you to hear me out on Mr. Marpet.
I could have just said "The Offensive Line," which was actually Carmen's nomination last week and a gimmick I pulled one time earlier this season. Tom Brady was only sacked one time and the running game racked up 127 yards. Against a team that had harassed Brady endlessly in two regular-season Saints win, the Buccaneers dominated the line of scrimmage and made sure that they did their part in winning the turnover battle. Tampa Bay didn't turn it over once and Brady's clean pocket was a big reason as to why.
To single out one of those five big men up front seems a little unfair to the other four, which is why we've tried "The Offensive Line" option twice. However, I think it's possible to get a little more specific this time, and lauding Marpet doesn't mean we think his four line-mates were any less deserving of recognition.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, 50 of the Bucs' 127 rushing yards came over left guard, more than in any other direction. That's where Ali Marpet played. Please let me direct your attention to the moment in the game when the Bucs started what is known as a "four-minute drill" in the fourth quarter. The idea in that drill is to gain a first down or two and keep the clock running or use up the opponents' timeouts, which means both sides know the offense is going to run the ball. The Bucs got their two first downs, which allowed Brady to kneel it out to the end of regulation. Here's the transcript of the three plays that produced the last first down:
"(4:01) L.Fournette left guard to NO 34 for 3 yards (S. Rankins).
(3:15) J.Haeg reported in as eligible. L.Fournette left guard to NO 30 for 4 yards (M.Davenport)
(2:27) J.Haeg reported in as eligible. L.Fournette left guard to NO 25 for 5 yards (S.Tuttle)"
The Bucs had to run the ball and had to get a first down, and who did they choose to run behind? Ali Marpet. That's not all.
Marpet sprung Ronald Jones for a nine-yard run on Jones' first carry of the game. Three plays later, Fournette came back in and ran over left guard for five more. In the third quarter, the Bucs were trailing by seven and had a first down at the Saints' 21. Jones took a handoff and started over left guard, breaking free for a 10-yard gain. The Bucs scored a touchdown moments later.
The rushing stats over left guard would have looked even better if the 44-yard run in the fourth quarter that Marpet sprung Jones for wasn't erased by a holding penalty on the opposite side of the line. Later that quarter, the Bucs faced a second-and-goal at the one-yard line and gave Brady a couple of options, including his patented QB sneak. Brady went with the sneak and scored…over left guard. Good decision.
If Marpet were to get a Game Ball, I'm guessing he would want to share it with the rest of the line, and that's fine. But in this case he's my individual nomination to go up against Devin White. You really can't go wrong here.