Considering the moves they made last spring and throughout the summer, the Buccaneers were seen by many as the team that would be best suited to unseat the Saints atop the NFC South in 2020, stopping New Orleans’ division title streak at three.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. Tampa Bay lost its season opener in the Big Easy, 34-23, and later got blown out at home by its division rival in Week 9 by a score of 38-3. Despite having a lead in the NFC South during the early part of the season, the Bucs weren’t able to hang on and their season sweep at the hands of the Saints was a big reason why. Ultimately, Sean Payton and his team earned a fourth consecutive NFC South crown while Bruce Arians’ squad claimed the top NFC Wild Card spot.
With their 31-23 win over the Washington Football Team last Saturday, the Buccaneers earned a spot in the NFC Divisional Round and waited all day Sunday to learn their opponent. Because the No. 6-seeded Rams defeated the No. 3-seeded Seahawks on Saturday as well, a 21-9 win for the No. 2-seeded Saints over the No. 7-seeded Bears set up Bucs-Saints III for Divisional Round Sunday. Would this time go any differently for Tampa Bay?
The Bucs came in with one major change along the offensive line. While Ali Marpet, who missed the Week 9 loss to the Saints, has been dominating at left guard ever since, the team now has a new right guard starting this week. With Alex Cappa’s season-ending injury last week, Aaron Stinnie was called upon to play alongside Ryan Jensen and Tristan Wirfs on the interior of the offensive line. Tampa Bay also had to cope with a limited Ronald Jones II, who was sidelined against Washington. But aside from the injury question marks, the Bucs came into this third matchup against New Orleans as a much different team than the one who suffered those tough defeats in Weeks 1 and 9.
New Orleans, on the other hand, had to be feeling confident coming into this one. After a 12-4 regular season and an easy win over Chicago on Wild Card Weekend, the Saints were staring fate dead in the face. Considering their recent playoff failures and the fact that this is believed to be their last chance at winning a second Lombardi Trophy with Drew Brees under center, they were going to have to take care of business and get themselves to the NFC Championship Game. However, they were going to have to do it without Taysom Hill and Latavius Murray.
Heading into the game, the Saints were 2.5-point favorites, with ESPN’s FPI giving them a 53.7% chance to win and set up an NFC title game date against the Packers.
Like the Week 9 game in Tampa, the Bucs started this one slow. They couldn’t get anything going on offense and struggled on special teams, but the defense held up to keep the deficit at 6-0 after one quarter. A huge turnover swung things in their favor in the second quarter, leading to a 10-6 lead. By halftime, it was a 13-13 ball game. In the second half, Tampa Bay’s defense dominated. After allowing a touchdown on the first drive of the third quarter, the defense forced three turnovers and allowed no points, leading to a 30-20 victory that sent the Bucs to Lambeau Field.
The Saints won the coin toss and deferred, meaning Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay offense would get a shot at taking an early lead. Instead, the Bucs went three-and-out. After a touchback, they started from their own 25-yard line and went to Leonard Fournette on first down for two yards. A five-yard pass from Brady to Cameron Brate set up a 3rd & 3, but a deep ball to Rob Gronkowski fell incomplete to force a punt. Bradley Pinion’s kick was a good one and Jaydon Mickens lit up Deonte Harris on the return. Only Mickens didn’t wrap up, allowing Harris to pick up a 54-yard return to Tampa Bay’s 21-yard line.
Starting with phenomenal field position, the New Orleans offense went to work. Devin White dropped Alvin Kamara for no gain on first down, but the Saints picked up a first down on the next play thanks to a completion to Emmanuel Sanders and a very questionable personal foul call on Jordan Whitehead. But from there, Tampa Bay’s defense stood tall and forced a 23-yard field goal attempt for Wil Lutz. He connected, but the Bucs trailing just 3-0 after giving up that return to Harris had to feel like a win.
After another touchback, the Buccaneer offense went back to work from its own 25. Fournette got another first-down carry and picked up four yards, then a second-down incompletion set up 3rd & 6. The Saints brought the pressure and got to Brady for a sack, leading to a second consecutive three-and-out. Like the Week 9 game, it was another bad start for Tampa Bay.
Harris burned the Buccaneer punt team again on Pinion’s second punt, with Ryan Smith and Pat O’ Connor missing tackles that led to a 67-yard return for a touchdown. The Bucs did get bailed out, however, with an illegal block in the back bringing the ball back to the Saints’ 30-yard line.
Sean Murphy-Bunting made an excellent diving pass breakup on first down of the second New Orleans drive. A second-down screen pass to Harris was sniffed out by White, who picked up the tackle to set up 3rd & 10. The defense couldn’t get off the field, though, with Brees finding Tre’Quan Smith for a gain of 13 yards. A 10-yard tripping penalty on Jason Pierre-Paul followed, getting the ball across midfield. Kamara picked up another 10 yards on the next play, continuing to put pressure on the Tampa Bay defense. After a five-yard run by Ty Montgomery and a four-yard pass to Jared Cook, Kamara picked up yet another first down.
At the Tampa Bay 25, New Orleans stalled. White stopped Kamara for a gain of one on first down before a second-down incompletion, then the Saints called their first timeout before a 3rd & 9 attempt. The Bucs brought some pressure on third down and Pierre-Paul broke up Brees’ pass at the line, forcing another field goal. Lutz nailed a 42-yarder, extending New Orleans’ lead to 6-0 with 4:39 left in the first quarter.
Tampa Bay’s offense started its third drive of the game with just one total yard, which brought Ronald Jones II onto the field for the first time. A first-down incompletion was followed by a nine-yard run by Jones, but no gain on third down set up a 4th & 1 at the Bucs’ 34. The Bucs lined up to go for it, and Brady sneaked it to get the team’s first first down of the game. Fournette came back into the game after that and picked up five and eight yards on his next two carries to get the ball to midfield. Two straight incompletions set up 3rd & 10, but a neutral-zone infraction made it a more manageable third down. Brady took advantage, finding Chris Godwin for an 11-yard gain to the Saints’ 35. A two-yard run by Jones sent the game into the second quarter with the home team leading 6-0, though the visitors were driving.
The Bucs started the second quarter hot, with Brady hitting Brate for a 16-yard gain to the Saints’ 17-yard line. Fournette got six yards on the next play, then picked up another three to bring up 3rd & 1. Brady couldn’t quite connect with Gronkowski on third down, bringing Ryan Succop out for a field goal. He hit a 26-yarder, bringing the score to 6-3 in favor of New Orleans.
Kamara picked up 11 and six yards on the first two plays of the Saints’ next drive, but a false start pushed things back to 2nd & 9. Tampa Bay brought White on a blitz on second down and flushed Brees out of the pocket, forcing a throw to Michael Thomas that Murphy-Bunting jumped and intercepted. He returned it to the 3-yard line, giving the Bucs some outstanding field position. It was the second interception in as many career playoff games for the second-year corner out of Central Michigan.
On the first play from the 3, Brady looked to Mike Evans, who hauled in the touchdown. With Succop’s PAT, the Bucs suddenly had a 10-6 lead early in the second quarter.
Brady: “Mike, be that dude right here.”— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) January 18, 2021
Tampa Bay’s defense took the field looking confident on the next drive, with Carlton Davis making a nice play to break up a first-down pass before a Murphy-Bunting tackle brought up 3rd & 6. A third-down incompletion was negated by an extremely questionable holding call on Murphy-Bunting, as Jared Cook had his hand on the defender’s face as well. That kept the New Orleans offense on the field. After another first down, Jameis Winston came onto the field. The Saints ran some trickery, the ball ended up in Winston’s hands and the former Buc unloaded a 56-yard touchdown pass to Smith to give the Saints a big response. With the PAT, New Orleans was back on top by a score of 13-10.
Tampa Bay’s offense didn’t do anything to take momentum back on its next drive. Jones ran for seven and two yards to set up 3rd & 1, then Brady inexplicably looked deep for Antonio Brown. The ball was nowhere near being completed and Marcus Williams came down with it, but he only got one foot in bounds. To add to what had already been a ridiculous night of officiating, Williams was originally ruled in. After a review, the call was reversed. Nonetheless, the Bucs had to punt again.
Pinion’s punt was a good one, going for 47 yards. And with a facemask call on the return team, the Saints had to start inside their own 10-yard line at the 9. New Orleans got moving, with Kamara getting five yards before completions of 10 and 16 yards to Sanders. A short run and a tackle for loss by Murphy-Bunting and White on a second-down screen brought up a 3rd & 11. Kamara took a screen pass for nine yards to set up 4th & 2, and while the Saints tried to draw an offsides, no one crossed into the neutral zone. That led to a false start, which brought Thomas Morstead out for a punt.
With 2:28 to go in the half, the Bucs went from their 18. A three-yard run by Fournette and then a drop on a screen brought up the two-minute warning with Tampa Bay facing a 3rd & 7.
After the break, the Bucs converted with a check-down to Fournette. Brady then found Godwin for eight yards before another screen to Fournette, who gained a solid 14 yards to get across midfield. Fournette took another check-down a couple of plays later and gained eight yards to the New Orleans’ 41. That brought up a 3rd & 2 and led to the Bucs calling their first timeout with 54 seconds to go in the half.
The Bucs did run on third-and-short out of the timeout and picked up the first down, then Brady saved a near-fumble on the snap of the next play and found Brown for 10 yards to the 24. That forced the team’s second timeout with 27 seconds left, then an Aaron Stinnie false start backed things up to 1st & 15. Two incompletions brought up 3rd & 15 with 18 seconds to go, but Brady found Brate for a pickup of 10 and called a timeout to set up Succop for a potential game-tying field goal. The 37-yarder was good, tying the game up at 13-13 heading into halftime.
The Saints started the second half from their own 25 and drove quickly down the field, only getting to third down once. Kamara was the workhorse of the drive, getting a couple of solid gains before breaking one for 17 yards into Tampa Bay territory. A 13-yard pass to Ty Montgomery got the ball inside the red zone, then Brees found Smith for a 16-yard score to put the Saints back on top. With Lutz’s PAT, the Bucs were trailing 20-13 with 9:43 left in the third quarter.
Fournette continued to get the ball frequently as the Buccaneer offense took the field in the second half. He got 14 yards on three consecutive touches, but a short pass to Godwin and a missed facemask call brought up an eventual 3rd & 5. On that third down play, Brady couldn’t convert, leading to a quick punt—the last thing the offense needed after the Tampa Bay defense was on the field for a 10-play, five-minute scoring drive.
After Pinion’s punt was caught for a fair catch at the 15, Brees and his offense went back to work. White dropped Sanders for no gain on a first-down screen before a short two-yard run on second down brought up 3rd & 8 for New Orleans. A holding call on Murphy-Bunting extended the drive, however, then he limped off the field after a free 20 yards. On the next play, Antoine Winfield Jr. juuuust missed a huge interception, mistiming the jump to force an incompletion. Winfield made up for it on the very next play, though, forcing a Jared Cook fumble that White recovered and returned to the Saints’ 40.
On the first play of Tampa Bay’s ensuing possession, Brady found Brate for a 19-yard gain to the 21. Jones picked up 10 yards on the next play to get inside the red zone, then he got another give to the 6-yard line. Two plays later, Brady converted the turnover into points by finding Fournette for a six-yard score. With Succop’s PAT, the Bucs tied things up at 20-20 with 2:22 left in the third quarter.
The Bucs nearly forced a three-and-out on the next drive, but a third-down penalty gave the Saints a first down, their fifth of the game by way of penalty. A one-yard run by Kamara and a pass breakup by Jamel Dean forced a 3rd & 9, then Ross Cockrell broke up Brees’ third-down pass to bring Morstead out for a punt. He booted a 55-yarder, but a 13-yard return by Mickens set Brady and the offense up at their own 21.
Jones got six yards on the first play of Tampa Bay’s next series, bringing up a 2nd & 4 after the end of the third quarter. With 15 minutes to play, the Bucs and Saints were knotted up at 20.
One more to finish this. pic.twitter.com/9aQZANyiVI— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) January 18, 2021
Jones picked up three more on the first play of the fourth quarter, setting up a 3rd & 1. Jones broke off a 44-yarder on the next play, but a crucial holding call on Tristan Wirfs brought the ball all the way back and gave Tampa Bay a 3rd & 11. Rookie Tyler Johnson came up with an outstanding catch on third down, though, picking up 15 yards and a first down.
A couple of plays later, with a 3rd & 5 ahead of them, the Bucs converted again. This time, it was Scotty Miller coming up huge, running a great route and coming down with a 29-yard gain to the Saints’ 31. After a Tampa Bay timeout, Jones ran for 12 more yards to get the ball inside the red zone. A short Jones run and an incomplete pass brought up another third down, which Tampa Bay couldn’t convert this time. Marshon Lattimore jumped Miller’s route and nearly picked the pass off, but it came up incomplete. Nonetheless, Succop came on to drill a 36-yard field goal, giving the visitors a 23-20 lead with 9:52 to play.
Starting the next series on its own 25, New Orleans went back to the ground. Kamara got two yards on first down before Montgomery got two on second to bring up 3rd & 6. The Saints converted, with Brees finding Sanders for a gain of seven. Montgomery got another two yards on his next carry, but then Tampa Bay’s defense stepped up and made another massive play. White picked off Brees’ pass, returning it 28 yards to the Saints’ 20.
Going from the 20 with just over seven minutes to go, the Bucs had a chance to potentially put the game away with a touchdown. After a short Jones run, Brady found Gronkowski for a 13-yard gain to the 4-yard line. Jones picked up three yards on the next play, then Brady snuck his way into the end zone to give the Bucs a HUGE insurance touchdown. With Succop’s PAT, Tampa Bay held a 30-20 lead with 4:57 to go.
The Saints went from their own 25, needing to move down the field quickly. They got one first down, but then the Tampa Bay defense struck again. Mike Edwards hauled in a tipped pass for an interception, marking the Saints’ fourth turnover of the day. That gave the ball back to the Bucs and all but sealed the game.
Holding a 10-point lead with just over four minutes left, the Bucs went to work on the clock. A couple of runs and a quick pass to Godwin got a first down and ran the Saints out of timeouts. A few more Fournette runs brought the game to the two-minute warning and the celebration was already on for the Buccaneers.
A couple of minutes later, the Bucs were officially headed to the NFC Championship Game for the fourth time in franchise history. Their 30-20 victory over the Saints set them up for a meeting against the Green Bay Packers next Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Quick Notes & Stats
- With a 13-13 halftime score, it’s no surprise that things were pretty even in the box score. Despite their slow start, the Bucs were only outgained 171-143. The Saints had the edge in first downs (11-9), yards per play (5.5-4.0) and time of possession (15:42-14:18), while the Bucs had the advantage in total plays (36-31), turnovers (1-0) and red zone efficiency (1-for-3 to 0-for-1).
- Tom Brady had a quiet first half, throwing for just 93 yards and a touchdown on 10-of-21 passing. By the end of the game, though, his stat line looked much better. He completed 18 of his 33 pass attempts for 199 yards and two touchdowns while adding a rushing score late to clinch the game.
- Leonard Fournette was heavily involved in the Buccaneer offense once again this week, rushing for 63 yards on 17 carries while catching five passes for 44 yards and a touchdown.
- Cameron Brate was key for the Bucs again this week as well, catching four passes for a team-high 50 yards.
- Ronald Jones II had a successful return to the field, putting up 62 yards on 13 carries despite very clearly playing through some pain.
- The Tampa Bay offensive line held up well even without Alex Cappa, allowing just one early sack and only three quarterback hits.
- With his second interception in as many weeks, Sean Murphy-Bunting became just the second player in Buccaneer history to record interceptions in back-to-back playoff games. He joins Ronde Barber, which is elite company, and he became the first NFL player to accomplish the feat since Richard Sherman did it last year.
- Murphy-Bunting finished with that interception, two passes defended and a tackle for loss.
- Devin White played Sunday night’s game like he really hated missing last week’s Wild Card win. He totaled 11 tackles (10 solo), a tackle for loss, a pass defended, a fumble recovery and an interception.
- Antoine Winfield Jr. came through with a clutch forced fumble in the third quarter and played extremely well throughout the secondary.
- Mike Edwards came up with the game-sealing interception to send the Bucs to a 30-20 victory.
- Michael Thomas was held without a catch on four targets in the game.
- As a defense, Tampa Bay intercepted three passes and totaled eight passes defended.
- Ryan Succop delivered, connecting on all three of his field goal attempts and all three of his extra point tries.
- Tampa Bay went 8-of-17 on third downs and 1-of-1 on fourth downs.
- In the end, the Bucs outgained the Saints 316-294 and won the turnover battle 4-0.
Next up for the Buccaneers is a trip to Lambeau Field. They’ll play the No. 1-seeded Packers at 3:05 p.m. next Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.