A showdown of legendary quarterbacks became one that was one dictated by defenses. And in the end, Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took advantage of four takeaways against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. For the first time since the 2002 season, the Buccaneers are heading to the NFC Championship Game following their 30-20 win over the Saints on Sunday. Fifth-seeded Tampa Bay is now set to face the top-seeded Green Bay Packers in the NFL title contest.
1) The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Tom Brady to finally make a deep postseason run. That plan came to fruition Sunday as TB12 will play in his ninth championship game in the past 10 seasons. Brady is always the headliner, but credit for the Divisional Round win goes to Todd Bowles' defense. The Bucs stuffed the run, bullied Saints receivers, and forced turnover after turnover after turnover. Tampa took advantage of Drew Brees' inability to stretch the field, playing press on the outside to disrupt the quick-pass attack. When the D had a chance at a ball, it didn't miss. Tampa picked off Brees three times and forced a fumble. The turnovers led to 21 points -- all of Tampa's TDs. Bowles' crew was dominant in the second half, with the Saints' last four possessions ending as such: Fumble, punt, INT, INT. The front didn't record a sack, but was in Brees' face enough to discombobulate the 42-year-old QB. Linebacker Devin White was the star of the show. After playing his worst game of the year against New Orleans in Week 9, White was a man on a mission. The speed demon compiled 11 tackles, a tackle for loss, an INT, and a fumble recovery. White is one of the few off-ball linebackers who can impact the whole field when he's on. Sunday he was a maniac, and wrecked everything the Saints attempted.
2) In the previous two games versus New Orleans, Brady made mistakes that cost his new team against a division rival. The 43-year-old didn't flub anything in the postseason. It wasn't TB12's best game, as a good Saints defense made life tough on the aged QB. Brady finished just 18-of-33 passing for 199 yards, but tossed two TDs and added a QB sneak score to ice the contest. Much of the contest, Brady was content to dump it short, hitting Leonard Fournette for a team-high five catches for 44 yards and a TD. While the star-studded Bucs cast was mostly slowed by New Orleans, Brady made plays when needed, including the best pass of the day, a 29-yard shot downfield to Scott Miller. The Bucs got enough out of the run game with Fournette (17/63) and Ronald Jones (13/62) to move the chains. When given the chance by their defense, the Bucs didn't screw up the turnovers, cashing in each time. Sunday's game looked like so many Brady playoff games of the past. This one was just in a different jersey.
3) The Saints defense slowed the Bucs enough, only giving up TDs after turnovers. The offense didn't hold up its end of the bargain. If this is the end for Drew Brees, it was a rough one. The 42-year-old QB can't stretch the field. Sunday he didn't attempt a pass 20 yards downfield. The inability to push the ball allowed the Bucs to squat on receivers. When Sean Payton wanted a trick shot play, he brought in Jameis Winston for a 56-yard TD toss. Brees finished 19-of-34 passing for just 134 yards, 3.9 yards per attempt, with one touchdown and three interceptions. Michael Thomas was a ghost. The highly paid wideout didn't record a single catch on four targets. This Saints offense can't operate when its best players are silenced. With Brees expected to retire, it is an unfortunate ending for the future Hall of Fame QB. Few players go out on top. Brees' career had so many peaks that Sunday's bomb will be swiftly forgotten.
4) The New Orleans defense played well early, forcing back-to-back three-and-outs by Brady. Marshon Lattimore once again helped shut down Mike Evans, with the star receiver catching just one pass for 3 yards, which went for a TD. The Saints suffocated the big names on the Bucs. Evans, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski and Chris Godwin combined for seven catches for 61 yards and Evans' score. However, New Orleans couldn't force the big negative plays. A pass rush that had controlled games in the past was quiet. New Orleans sacked Brady just once and had only three QB hits. Often Brady had all the time he wanted, thanks to stellar blocking. After turning opponents over this season, the Saints couldn't come up with a critical takeaway to stem the tide. By the end, the New Orleans defense was ground down after being put in bad spots all game.
5) The Bucs head to Green Bay to face MVP favorite Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Field. The game will mark Brady's 14th conference championship, but his first in the NFC. Tampa walloped the Packers, 38-10 back in Week 6, forcing Rodgers into his worst game of the season. The Bucs D forced two Rodgers INTs, including a game-changing pick-six, and held the QB to just 160 passing yards. As Tampa displayed today, however, the regular season is not always a prelude to how the postseason will unfold. The Saints enter the offseason with a bevy of questions to answer. First and foremost is the quarterback spot. For the first time in Sean Payton's career in New Orleans, he likely won't have Brees to lean on. His next choice at the position will speak loudly, whether or not it's Taysom Hill. Beyond that, Payton is expected to lose assistant head coach Dan Campbell to the Detroit Lions. Thomas is coming off a bad season in which the club disciplined him. Those issues need to be sorted through. And the salary cap situation New Orleans danced around for years could be more challenging in 2021. A Super Bowl-or-bust club crapped out in the Divisional Round once again. How Payton and Co. move forward will be one of the more interesting offseason subplots.