The New Orleans Saints won the first two rounds of 2020 but it was the Buccaneers who would win the fight in the third round via knockout. As in, knock their division rivals out of the playoffs and advance to the NFC Championship for the first time since their 2002 Super Bowl season.
Playing a team twice a year, every year, means you're already familiar with them. Add in the nuances of the postseason and an extra game and it pretty much comes down to a testament of wills.
Sunday night, the Buccaneers wanted it more. It wasn't a perfect game by any means, but the defense kept it close when the offense sputtered and the offense capitalized on what the defense gave them to edge out the Saints in a back and forth battle that ended in a 30-20 final score. Winner take all.
Here are a few things that stood out.
1. Win the turnover battle, win the game.
"The defense was incredible all game," said quarterback Tom Brady on Sunday night. "The turnovers were huge. Last time we played them, we lost the turnover [margin], minus three. Today was plus four – you're not going to lose many games when you're plus four."
This is true. The last time the Buccaneers made it this far in the playoffs was after the 2002 season on their way to Super Bowl XXXVII. The last time they put up defensive numbers like this in the postseason, was in fact that Super Bowl game itself against Oakland. The three interceptions captured by the Buccaneer defense on Sunday were the second-most in franchise history, second only to the five they had in San Diego against the Raiders. Include the forced fumble by Antoine Winfield Jr. and Tampa Bay's four total takeaways are the third most in a postseason game. They had five total in both the Super Bowl and the game against the 49ers leading up to the big game that year.
And it'd be a fool's errand to pick which pick (or fumble) was the most impressive. For instance, the first interception of the game was cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting's second in as many games. He joined Rondé Barber as the only players in Bucs' history to ever record an interception in back to back playoff games. What company to be in, am I right?
Then there was Antoine Winfield Jr.'s "peanut punch" on tight end Jared Cook. In the third quarter, the Bucs were trailing 20-13. The offense had just been stopped by New Orleans and the ball was back in Brees' hands with the opportunity to add to their lead. Winfield Jr. almost had a pick on Brees on first and 10 but the ball just went off his fingertips. Two plays later, Cook makes the grab but Winfield doesn't give up on the play. He straight up punches the ball as it's cradled in Cook's arms and it pops out. White recovers, takes it 28 yards and sets up the Bucs' tying touchdown. It was a huge momentum shift.
But it wasn't the only one.
It wasn't even the only one that White was involved with. In the fourth quarter, with the Bucs clinging to a three-point lead, White managed to get his hands just ahead of running back Alvin Kamara's and snatched the ball away for an interception – in stride, might I add. He returned it 18 yards this time, setting the Bucs up in New Orleans' territory. That drive would also end in point for the Bucs to put them up two scores halfway through the fourth quarter.
But then the real game clincher came. And it happened just four plays later. Safety Mike Edwards got another pick on Brees which gave the Bucs' offense the ball back with just 4:25 to go. A couple first downs and a couple kneel downs later and boom – the Bucs were moving on.
I'd be remiss to not mention a key factor in these takeaways and turnovers that won't show up on the stat sheet: pressure. Though the Buccaneers weren't able to get a sack on Brees, they were able to make him uncomfortable. Murphy-Bunting said following the game that his interception wouldn't have happened without the guys in front of him.
"As far as the interception goes, it was a group effort," he said. "The D-line got to the quarterback, so I did my job. It was man-to-man, so there really wasn't much to it. I got my hands on him, got my head around and got the ball. I'm actually kind of upset I didn't get in the end zone, but Mike [Evans] did, so that's all that matters."
Coupled with the fact that the offense didn't turn the ball over (though there were a couple near misses if you want to credit the Saints' secondary a little bit), and the turnover margin was the single biggest factor in why the Buccaneers played the Saints for the third time this year but came away with the win for the first.
Check this out, too. Wide receiver Michael Thomas was held without a single catch. He had zero yards on the day. Brees had just 134 yards passing on the day. Throwing one touchdown against three picks meant he finished with a passer rating of 38.1.
2. Played a complete game on offense.
Brady and the Bucs' offense, conversely, were able to capitalize on their extra possessions and didn't let the Saints runaway with the time of possession battle. In fact, the Bucs edged them out 31:31 to 28:29 thanks to those bonus drives.
That and they held the ball longer thanks to an increased rushing attack. The Bucs ran the ball 35 times on Sunday evening. They passed the ball 33 times. It led to 127 total rushing yards that were evenly split among both running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones. Fournette had 17 carries for 63 yards while Jones had 13 carries for 62 yards. Brady came in with the other five rushing attempts. One came to convert a fourth and one while another came at the goal line for a quarterback sneak into the end zone.
"We didn't really get down big during this game, but we weren't always running smoothly on offense," tight end Cam Brate said Monday. "We just kind of had a feeling that we were going to figure it out. The looks they were giving us, they were inviting us to run the ball, so we kind of took it upon ourselves to get the ground game going. I think that really opened up a lot of things for us."
Brate was the Bucs' leading receiver on the day with four catches on five targets for 50 yards. Funny enough, Fournette actually led the team in targets with six and caught five of them for 44 yards and a touchdown. Wide receiver Mike Evans was the only other player to catch a touchdown pass, finishing off Murphy-Bunting's interception with a three-yard end zone grab. On the whole, Brady actually only had 199 yards passing with two touchdown passes and a rushing touchdown. I say only just because he's put up video game numbers the past few games. But those numbers weren't indicative of a balanced offense like the one we saw on Sunday night in New Orleans. And with the way the Bucs controlled the game, I think you'd take balance in the postseason any time you can get it.
View photos of Tampa Bay's Divisional Round matchup against New Orleans.
3. Experience leading the way.
This win earned Tom Brady a trip to his 14th conference championship game. No, that's not a typo. It was his 32nd playoff win. Rob Gronkowski has never not been to the postseason in his career. Just let that sink in because it is unprecedented and unlikely to ever be replicated. With a track record like that, those two are leading this team to the belief that they belong and it shows.
"[I'm] just so proud of everyone – the whole organization," said Brady after the game. "Our coaches have put in so much work and effort getting us to this point and preparing us every day – just done an amazing job. Guys really come together – it's a really unique team. We have great chemistry, we have fun at practice and we've worked really hard to get to this point, just like the other three teams remaining. It's hard to get to this point – there's nothing guaranteed from this point forward – but we've got to go out there and we're going to have to play our very best to beat one of the best teams in the league."
Not to be overlooked are a few other guys on the roster who have playoff experience, too. Even a young guy like Fournette, who just celebrated his 26th birthday on Monday.
"I'm telling Ro, excuse my language, but '[Forget] the injury," Fournette said of what he talked to Jones about prior to Sunday's game. "We need you, I'm not going to lie to you – we need you.' I've been in these types of games. It's funny – we have four good running backs – Ro came in fresh; I came in fresh. I said, 'Man, understand this – you don't get many chances to make it to the playoffs [and] to have the run that we're on right now.' I'm a living example. We (the Jacksonville Jaguars) went from the AFC Championship to the next two years not even making it to the playoffs. So big congrats to Ro for fighting through the injury – a hand and a quad. That's difficult to play with. I played with it in college and it's hard. Also, shoutout to coach T-Mac (Todd McNair) who was drilling us on the sideline every possession, giving us tips. '[Did] you see that look Leonard? How do you feel about this run? How do you feel about that?' They did a great job as a whole with our running back coach too."
Then you have multiple defensive players who have quite a bit of experience in the postseason, too. That consists of guys like Super Bowl champs Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett, plus Ndamukong Suh, who said on Monday that he tried to impart his knowledge and preparation on some of the younger players on defense heading into the playoffs.
"Like I said, having veteran guys like Lavonte [David], myself, JPP (Jason Pierre-Paul) who has won a championship, Shaq [Barrett] who has won a championship, who have been in these situations, it's able to talk to these younger guys and say, 'It's no different than us playing a regular season game,'" said Suh. "Obviously, it means a lot more and we need to be that much more on point because people are going to try and expose us for our mistakes, but just go out there and execute. When you have an opportunity to make a big play as [Antoine] Winfield did, as Sean [Murphy-Bunting] did – I gave that little man a hug after the game because I'm so proud of him, the way he's handled his business and the things that he's really had to fight through. It's being able to encourage those guys and them getting that feeling, getting their feet wet and them understanding how they can continue to grow through the midst of the success."