The Buccaneers weren't supposed to travel all the way up to Green Bay, Wisconsin, deal with a 50-degree temperature difference and potential snow, take on the NFC's number one seed and the league's potential MVP in Aaron Rodgers and come away with a win.
But they did.
And it wasn't the blowout they enjoyed last time these two teams matched up. All week, Bucs players and coaches stressed that the team's 38-10 victory in Week Six meant nothing. The Packers were a new team and they were in their house, having played one less playoff game as the top seed and boasted the league's number one scoring offense. That showed. Despite jumping out to a lead at the start of the second quarter that the Bucs would not relinquish, the game still felt like a back and forth battle that wasn't over until the clock ran out.
Thanks to the resiliency of the Buccaneers and a couple key factors, it ended in Tampa Bay's favor. Here are a few of those things that stood out.
1. Complementary football.
At its finest. This was the story of the game against the Saints in the Divisional Round and perhaps the story on a larger scale all year. When one side of the ball sputters, the other picks up the slack. Or when the defense gives the offense extra opportunities, they capitalize. Both of those scenarios played out at Lambeau Field on Sunday afternoon as the Buccaneers escaped the Frozen Tundra with a victory and a Super Bowl berth.
With 34 seconds remaining in the first half, the Bucs' first takeaway came AGAIN on a Sean Murphy-Bunting interception. It was his third in three games… three postseason games. How's that for hitting your stride at the right time? Murphy-Bunting joined Pro Football Hall of Famers Aeneas Williams (four-consecutive games) and Ed Reed as well as Jason Sehorn as the only four players in the Super Bowl era with an interception in each of their first three career postseason games. His three postseason interceptions are tied for the most in team history. SMB is also the first player in the NFL to record an interception in at least three-consecutive postseason games since Kam Chancellor and the first to do so in a single postseason since R.W. McQuarters in 2007. The interception led to a miraculous drive in which the Buccaneers were initially stopped on fourth-down and four just past midfield at the Green Bay 45-yard line. It would have been too long for a field goal try so the punt team came out. But then Tampa Bay called a timeout.
"I sent the punt team out [and then] I went through a couple scenarios in my mind," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "The clock was stopped and I said, 'No, we're going back out. We've got a good play. We're going back out and trying to get some points.'"
"B.A. (Bruce Arians) wanted to go for it – I liked the call and I'm going to do whatever he asks me to do," continued quarterback Tom Brady. "Byron [Leftwich] dialed up a great play and we got behind the defense. We had a couple other opportunities, too. Just a great job by Scotty running a great route [and] getting open. I just tried to lay it out there for him to go grab it."
Yeah, the series ended on a spectacular 39-yard bomb to wide receiver Scotty Miller, who had blown past his defender and was wide open with running room in the end zone. Brady placed a perfect ball and added to the Bucs' lead as they ended the first half up 21-10.
On the other side of halftime, the Packers' first drive of the third quarter would be cut short by yet another turnover. This time it was the second of two forced fumbles from safety Jordan Whitehead and the first recovered by the Buccaneers. It was picked up by Devin White for his second fumble recovery in two games and returned 21 yards to give the Buccaneer offense a bonus possession right at the start of the half that began at the Packers' eight-yard line. One play later and Brady hit tight end Cam Brate in the end zone for the touchdown. The Buccaneers defense now leads all playoff teams with its seven takeaways and 41 points off those takeaways.
Speaking of White, he led the team with 15 tackles – the most tackles in a playoff game in team history on top of that fumble recovery. The Bucs pestered the Packers quarterback and ball carriers all afternoon, recording 63 tackles to Green Bay's 51. Four of those tackles were for loss and the Bucs landed eight quarterback hits on Aaron Rodgers. Oh yeah, five of which were sacks. Outside linebacker Shaq Barrett brought down Rodgers three times in the game, joining former defensive tackle Warren Sapp as the only players in team history with 3.0-or-more sacks in a playoff game. Not to be outdone, and almost insistent he shared in one of those sacks too, was outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, who was credited with two sacks of his own. It marked the first multi-sack performance of his postseason career. He joined Barrett, Simeon Rice (twice), Warren Sapp, Lee Roy Selmon and Steve White as the only players in team history with multiple sacks in a postseason game. Barrett and Pierre-Paul's 5.0 combined sacks on Sunday matched the Buccaneers' postseason record for a single game and also matched the most Rodgers had been sacked all season. I'd be remiss not to mention what a huge impact the defensive interior had on the success of its bookends, too. With the return of nose tackle Vita Vea, who played 33 snaps – which was 46% of the team's defensive snaps on the night, Green Bay's offensive line had all they could handle as the Bucs rotated Ndamukong Suh, Will Gholston, Rakeem Nuñez-Roches and Steve McLendon up front. With much of the line focused on the interior, it gave JPP and Barrett a lot of one-on-one matchups, which of course, they won.
The interception led to the 39-yard score, the fumble recovery led to that eight-yard touchdown grab by Brate and the offense continued to match the defense's energy in a lot of ways. The 31 points were the second-most points ever in a playoff game for the Buccaneers, second only to the 48 they put up in San Diego on the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. The Bucs' 351 net yards were the third-most ever in a playoff game. And that was a direct result of the man under center, who finished the day completing 20 of 36 pass attempts for 280 yards and three touchdowns. Brady became the first player in Tampa Bay's postseason history with three-or-more touchdown passes in a single game. His 11 career three-touchdown performances in the playoffs are the most in NFL history.
And though he didn't get in the end zone, a big reason for the Bucs' production on offense was wide receiver Chris Godwin, who had five catches for 110 yards. Three of those came on crucial third downs and one was a 52-yard circus catch that he nearly sacrificed his body for that set up a touchdown. His 110 yards are the second-most in a playoff game in team history behind only Mike Evans' 119 yards in Washington this year.
But it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows. Complementary football works when one side is struggling and there was no better evidence of that than the defensive stops in the fourth quarter. While Brady threw three touchdowns, he threw interceptions on three straight possessions. But the Packers only got a single touchdown off those turnovers. The Bucs' defense forced back-to-back three and outs after the latter two picks. It stopped Green Bay in their tracks and allowed the Bucs to tack on a late field goal that would prove to be all they needed to come away with the win.
And speaking of that field goal, it was kicker Ryan Succop who made the 46-yarder on his only field goal attempt of the game, while converting all four extra point attempts. Succop is now 12-of-12 in his postseason career. His eight field goals made for Tampa Bay in the postseason are the second-most in franchise playoff history and he has been as reliable as they come – especially for a franchise that had been missing continuity at the position. Special teams was crucial all night as wide receiver and kick returner Jaydon Mickens amassed 121 kick return yards, which set the record for most in a single game in Buccaneers postseason history.
An all-around effort in the greatest team sport there is.
2. The belief system.
The sun coming out right before kickoff may have been all we needed to know to get some reassurance that the Buccaneers would be ok against the NFC's top seed. That, or the fact that perhaps the most experienced player of all time when it comes to playoffs and conference championships and Super Bowls was the one leading the Bucs.
That's all you hear about Brady from his teammates: what a good leader he is. And leadership matters. Leadership can be that 'X' factor – that intangible that turns out to be the missing piece on successful teams. That's what Brady has done for the Buccaneers: provided leadership like no other. The defense, in many ways including those described above, were the ones that carried the Bucs in the win, but it is the belief that this team has in one another that may have put it over the edge – just as it has all season. And I'm not sure that belief happens without Brady.
You're never fully out of a game until the clock hits zero because Brady doesn't believe you are. And he's shown time and time again (this season being no exception) that not only is that the belief, that's a fact. The Bucs have overcome 17+ deficits (plural) to eek out wins this season. They suffered through losing three games in four weeks. They were 7-5 going into their Week 13 bye. Now, here they are heading to the Super Bowl and making history not even a year after Brady signed that piece of paper that made him a Buccaneer 10 short months ago.
"I think it's hard to envision," Brady said about earning a trip to the Super Bowl, though it's his 10th time doing so. "This is a goal, but at the same time it's a week-to-week league. We were at 7-5 seven games ago, not feeling great. We felt like we needed to find our rhythm and [we] played four great games down the stretch the last quarter of the season. After that, it was all bonus. We just had to go play well. We played well in Washington, we played well all the way around in New Orleans against a great football team and then came up here knowing we had to play great. The guys came through, everyone stepped up to the challenge and again, just a great [win]. Football is the ultimate team sport and it takes everybody. Everybody plays a role, [I am] just so proud of this whole team and again, just blessed to be a part of it."
3. Injuries played a major role but hopefully won't going forward.
Some of the Buccaneer struggles in Green Bay can likely be attributed to injuries. They got the news earlier in the week they'd be without wide receiver Antonio Brown, who had come to be a productive component of the offense in recent weeks. Though he made the trip to Lambeau, rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. was not active for the game due to an ankle injury he had sustained during the week. That meant the Bucs were a little thin at safety to begin with and though Whitehead had a tremendous game where he forced those two aforementioned fumbles along with collecting five combined tackles, he would go down with a shoulder injury after delivering a hard hit on one of them. It meant the Buccaneers fielded backup safeties Mike Edwards and Andrew Adams for much of the second half. Green Bay scored touchdowns on back-to-back possessions to pull them uncomfortably close as the fourth quarter began.
But the Buccaneers survived. And with two weeks until they face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV in their home stadium (which means they don't have to travel), they should have plenty of time to get a little bit of rest between now and then and hopefully get most of their team healthy in the process.
View the top photos of Tampa Bay's NFC Championship Game vs. the Green Bay Packers.