Nineteen years ago, Tom Brady used a stout defense and some late-game playoff magic on the way to a memorable win over the Rams in Super Bowl XXVI in the Superdome.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
On Sunday in New Orleans, Brady wasn’t especially sharp, but the Tampa Bay defense finished with four takeaways — including three interceptions of Drew Brees — and the quarterback led a second-half comeback on the way to a 30-20 win over the Saints.
Brady and the Buccaneers advance to next week’s NFC championship game against the Packers in Green Bay. It will mark the 14th conference championship game for the 43-year-old Brady.
Brady was set up for success all afternoon, as the Tampa Bay defense consistently got the ball back to the Bucs’ in New Orleans territory. Brady found Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette for touchdown passes, and added a 1-yard rushing touchdown of his own in the fourth quarter to cement the victory.
A year after Brady left New England for Tampa Bay, Brady went 18-for-33 for 199 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Fournette had 17 carries for 63 yards to go along with five catches for 44 yards and a receiving touchdown.
Meanwhile, Brees — who is reportedly considering retirement — ended his season going 19-for-34 for 134 yards with one touchdown and three picks. Alvain Kamara added 18 carries for 85 yards, while Tre’Quan Smith added three catches for 85 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Here’s how it all happened:
9:52 p.m.: That’ll do it. Bucs win, 30-20.
9:41 p.m.: You never say never, but that last pick from Brees might just about do it. Tampa has the ball and a 10 point lead with 4:17 remaining.
9:35 p.m.: Seen that before, Patriots fans? A big 13-yard pickup from Rob Gronkowski set Brady up, and the quarterback delivered with a 1-yard plunge to make it 30-20 with 4:57 left in regulation. Hard not to think about Brady making late-game playoff magic 19 years ago in this same building.
9:32 p.m.: Another turnover that will set up the Bucs with excellent field position. Wow. Just a bad sequence there for the Saints — miscommunication between Brees and Kamara? Whatever the case may be, the New Orleans defense has to hold here.
9:26 p.m.: While this game was billed as a showdown between two first-ballot Hall of Famers, the complementary players are starting to emerge as key participants this afternoon. A 15-yarder to Tyler Johnson — a phenomenal reception — allowed Tampa to convert a key third-and-long. That was followed up another nice third-down catch (this one a 29-yarder) by Scotty Miller. And just after that, Ronald Jones spun for a 12-yard pickup on the ground. The Bucs had to settle for a 36-yard field goal from Ryan Succop to make it 23-20 with 9:52 left in regulation, but it was a really sharp sequence for Tampa that highlighted their offensive depth. We’ll see how Brees and the Saints respond.
9:12 p.m.: End of the third quarter, and it’s tied at 20.
9:08 p.m.: Brees spent a lot of time on that drive backpedaling. That’s not a recipe for success. The Saints are going to punt the ball away here with less than a minute to go in the third quarter and the game tied at 20.
9:00 p.m.: If New Orleans ends up losing this one, the Saints will only have themselves to blame. That Tampa touchdown was set up by a second takeaway deep in New Orleans territory — this one off the fumble — and it’s a tie game here late in the third quarter. Tough to win a race when you shoot yourself in the foot on multiple occasions. Anyway, that Brady-to-Fournette touchdown pass went for six yards, and it’s 20-20 with 2:22 remaining in the third quarter. Something tells me we’re in for a wild finish.
8:55 p.m.: After a nice catch and run, that was a bad fumble by Cook. Tampa Bay set up with nice field position here — Brady and the Bucs will tae over at the New Orleans 21.
8:48 p.m.: Tampa Bay punting again — the Saints have a chance to put their stamp on this game. We’re halfway through the third quarter, and it’s 20-13, New Orleans. Brady is 12-for-24 for 103 yards and a touchdown, while Brees is 12-for-21 for 99 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Not exactly the high-octane battle of quarterbacks that was promised.
8:42 p.m.: Most of that drive was simple: You keep using two-deep safeties, we’ll keep giving the ball to Alvin Kamara. The shifty back got some yardage to get the drive cranked up, with Brees giving him the ball time and again resulting in chunk yardage early. In the end, it was Brees to Smith on a 16-yard pass play for the touchdown. Brees is nine for his last 10 overall. It’s 20-13 New Orleans with 9:43 to go in the third quarter.
8:17 p.m.: Two quarters are in the books in New Orleans, and the game is tied at 13.
Brees: 10-for-17, 63 yards, 1 INT
Kamara: 10 carries, 44 yards
Smith: 2 catches, 69 yards, 1 TD
Brady: 10-for-21, 93 yards, 1 TD
Fournette: 8 carries, 38 yards; 3 catches, 30 yards
Brate: 3 catches, 31 yards
Here are a few quick takeaways:
•Neither offense has been overwhelming, with the biggest highlight of the first two quarters coming when Jameis Winston completed a 56-yard touchdown pass midway through the second to give the Saints the lead. With the exception of their last drive of the half, Brady and the Bucs’ passing game has been a little sluggish over the first two quarters.
•The defenses have played well, with Tampa’s Sean Murphy-Bunting providing the biggest play on defense for both teams when he picked off Brees deep in New Orleans territory — one play after that, Brady found Mike Evans for the lone touchdown of the first half for the Bucs.
•Special teams can often be the difference in a big game like this between two talented teams, and if that’s the case this afternoon, the Saints have displayed an early edge with a pair of field goals and a nice punt return from Deonte Harris. Harris — out of Assumption College — had an impressive 54-yard return in the early going.
•The Saints will get the ball to start the second half.
8:09 p.m.: This one is getting increasingly chippy.
Lattimore and Evans with some words for each other on this drive. pic.twitter.com/tiA6PBF55U
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 18, 2021
7:47 p.m.: Great razzle-dazzle answer by Sean Payton and the Saints — a 56-yard touchdown from Winston to Smith makes it 13-10 with 8:08 to go in the second quarter. That’s the first touchdown pass of Winston’s career with New Orleans. Love the call, and love the level of execution from the New Orleans offense.
— NFL (@NFL) January 18, 2021
7:38 p.m.: One play after the pick, Mike Evans hauls in a touchdown pass from Brady and all of a sudden, the Bucs are up 10-6 with 11:16 to go in the half. Feels like the game has turned extraordinarily quickly.
Here’s the pick by Murphy-Bunting that set up the score. Dynamite play.
Sean Murphy-Bunting grabs the interception!
— NFL (@NFL) January 18, 2021
7:36 p.m.: Huge play there by the Tampa defense, as Sean Murphy-Bunting picks off Brees deep in New Orleans territory. HUGE opportunity here for the Bucs to take the lead.
7:30 p.m.: A 15-play drive for Tampa Bay ends with a 26-yard field goal from Succop to make it 6-3 with 12:57 to go in the second quarter. Both defenses are playing well, but the offenses have missed out on a few opportunities on both sides of the ball. Regardless, Brady ends that drive 3-for-9 for 32 yards, while Fournette has six carries for 28 yards — he’s been Tampa’s best and most consistent offensive presence to this point in the game. A good — not great — answer for the Bucs. Let’s see how Brees and the Saints respond here with their initial offensives series of the second quarter.
7:24 p.m.: First quarter is done, and the Saints are up, 6-0. On this most recent drive, Tampa got its first first down of the game on a Brady sneak on fourth down, but the Bucs have seen offense in fits and starts on this most recent drive — overall, Tampa had just two plays in New Orleans territory in the first quarter. Brady is just 2-for-7 for 16 yards, while Fournette has four carries for 19 yards. On the other side of the ball, Brees is 4-for-9 for 23 yards, while Kamara has six carries for 17 yards.
7:12 p.m.: You will not win playoff games if you settle for field goals, no matter how impressive and consistent the drives are. That being said, New Orleans holds a 6-0 lead with 4:39 to go in the first quarter after the second field goal of the first quarter. Good special teams start for New Orleans with an impressive return and a pair of successful field goals. Big drive looming here for Tampa, which needs to string together a nice series to get some offensive consistency and rhythm.
7:00 p.m.: Big special teams start for the Saints — too bad that punt return from Harris was called back. Big games like this can turn on special teams, and so far, New Orleans has an edge.
6:56 p.m.: An early FG from New Orleans makes it 3-0 with just over 11 minutes left in the first quarter.
6:45 p.m.: Brady and the Bucs go three-and-out, including a missed connection with Gronkowski. Tampa punts it away. There’s 12:18 left in the first quarter following a terrific return from Harris — the Saints will start their series at the Tampa Bay 21.
6:42 p.m.: FWIW, Brady has never won four postseason games in one year.
6:25 p.m.: It would have been fun to see a Browns-Bills AFC title game, but Kansas City just had a little more left in the tank. From a personal standpoint, I’m happy because that makes me 3-0 on the weekend with my picks. For this afternoon’s finale, I’ve got the Saints over the Bucs, but of my four picks this weekend, it’s the one I feel least secure about. We’ll see how it all shakes out, but it should be a lot of fun to watch.
6:10 p.m.: Here’s the play that sealed it for the Chiefs.
— NFL (@NFL) January 17, 2021
6:05 p.m.: Just like we all thought … Chad Henne beats the Browns to get to the conference title game. It’ll be Kansas City hosting Buffalo next Sunday for the chance to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
5:55 p.m.: Thought this was interesting. Rob Gronkowski talked to Willie McGinest about a few different things on NFL Network earlier today, including some of the differences between playing for Bill Belichick and Bruce Arians.
“I’ve been playing football in the NFL for 10 years, and I’ve been in the playoffs for all 10 years baby, that’s what’s up Willie!”@RobGronkowski is excited to be with the @Buccaneers, and excited for another playoff run 💪 @WillieMcGinest pic.twitter.com/xkSh9CwSbs
— NFL GameDay (@NFLGameDay) January 17, 2021
5:46 p.m.: Only semi-logical reason for that pass from Henne? Maybe the Chiefs are resigned to a field-position battle. Or they know something about the state of their defense that we didn’t see on that last Cleveland offensive possession. Whatever the case, the Browns will get the ball back with a chance to take the lead here in the fourth quarter.
5:36 p.m.: If the Browns finish off this comeback, this catch will go down in Cleveland sports lore. It’s 22-17 with just over 10 minutes to go in regulation, and Mahomes is out the rest of the way.
— NFL (@NFL) January 17, 2021
5:27 p.m.: When it comes to Brees-Brady, how can you not love these classic quarterback matchups? It was fun when Brady was in New England and Brees was in New Orleans — although those showdowns were rare — and now, we’re fortunate enough to get them at least twice a year with the two of them in the NFC South. Feels like the old Brady-Manning days when Manning was in Indy. Regardless, should be a lot of fun to see these guys go at it. I’ve picked the Saints, but that is probably the least confident choice of the weekend. The consolation prize? If I’m wrong, we still get Brady-Rodgers next week, which should also be fun. (In New England, that was the one classic QB Super Bowl showdown we missed out on.
5:19 p.m.: Saints inactives for today include Taysom Hill (knee), as well as Patrick Robinson, Latavius Murray, Juwan Johnson, Malcolm Roach, Ken Crawley and Derrick Kelly. As for the Bucs, the big news is that running back Ronald Jones II is active, but the following players are out: TE Antony Auclair, QB Ryan Griffin, S Javon Hagan, DL Jeremiah Ledbetter, RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, G Earl Watford, WR Justin Watson.
5:10 p.m.: The Chiefs are up on the Browns, 22-10, but Mahomes just went down with a head injury.
5:00 p.m.: Welcome to the finale of the divisional round, as Tom Brady and the Buccaneers face Drew Brees and the Saints for the right to travel to Green Bay for the NFC title game this afternoon at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Kickoff is set for 6:40 p.m. EST, but we’ll take you through the afternoon, keeping you up-to-date in Tampa Bay and New Orleans. (We’ll probably toss in a few Kansas City-Cleveland updates as well.) But first, we’re going to kick things off with a pregame reading list.
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