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Buccaneers of the Playoffs: At Packers

Which five players were Tampa Bay’s best in Sunday’s 31-26 NFC Championship Game victory over Green Bay?

NFC Championship - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Buccaneers actually did it. With their 31-26 victory over the Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday, they earned the right to be the first team in NFL history to play for the Super Bowl on its home field.

With road wins over Washington, New Orleans and now Green Bay, Tampa Bay now gets to come home to Raymond James Stadium to host the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs in two weeks.

The road to the NFC Championship Game was hard enough, but then came the game itself. The Bucs went up early and eventually found themselves on top by a score of 28-10, but the Packers fought their way back. They got within 28-23, but some questionable decision-making by head coach Matt LaFleur late in the game came back to haunt them as Tampa Bay ran the clock out to finish off a 31-26 win. After 18 long years, the Bucs are back in the Super Bowl with a chance to win the Lombardi Trophy for the second time in franchise history.

Before we get to Feb. 7, there are some Buccaneers of the Playoffs points to give out! Let’s look back at the huge NFC Championship Game win to see who Tampa Bay’s top performers were.

If anyone’s new around here for the playoffs, here’s how this works: I’ll rank the top five Buccaneers from each week’s game, assigning point values for each. No. 5 gets one point, No. 4 gets two and so on. The cumulative totals will be added up in the Buccaneers of the Playoffs Standings. For reference, the past Buccaneers of the Year winners are as follows: Mike Evans (2018), Shaquil Barrett (2019) and Tom Brady (2020). OK, let’s get it going.

Honorable Mentions

Despite his three interceptions, Tom Brady was a major part of the Bucs getting past the Packers. He completed 20 of his 36 pass attempts for 280 yards and three touchdowns, with a key 39-yard touchdown pass to Scotty Miller at the very end of the first half to put Tampa Bay up 21-10 at the break... Leonard Fournette, a.k.a. “Playoff Lenny,” continued to contribute for the Buccaneer offense in this one. Without much running room, he broke off an impressive 20-yard touchdown run in the first half and eventually finished with 55 yards and a score on 12 carries while adding five catches for 19 yards... Mike Evans was heavily involved early in the game, making three catches for 51 yards and the game’s opening touchdown... Tampa Bay’s offensive line held up pretty well, allowing just one sack and four quarterback hits. Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs were especially impressive...

Jordan Whitehead just barely missed out on some points in these standings this week after he forced two fumbles, with one recovered by Devin White to set up a Bucs touchdown. Before he left with an injury, Whitehead earned a 91.6 grade from Pro Football Focus, the highest grade of any player in Sunday’s game... White was all over the field again on Sunday, totaling 15 tackles (nine solo) and recovering a fumble... Mike Edwards stepped in admirably with both Whitehead and Antoine Winfield Jr. missing at the safety position... Jaydon Mickens had a strong game as a returner, totaling 121 kick return yards—a new franchise record for a playoff game... Ryan Succop delivered on a late 46-yard field goal, giving Tampa Bay some badly needed separation.

5. Sean Murphy-Bunting (One point)

Sean Murphy-Bunting wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination on Sunday against Green Bay, but he did enough to warrant a spot in the top five nonetheless. He made up for an early coverage blunder by turning the tide in Tampa Bay’s favor late in the first half. The Bucs led 14-10 at the time, but the Packers had a chance to score to end the half before getting the ball again to start the second half. Instead, Murphy-Bunting came up with an interception of Aaron Rodgers to get the ball back to his offense. It was his third pick in as many career playoff games, making him the fourth player in the Super Bowl era to nab three in his first three. After that interception, the Bucs managed to score, going up 21-10 heading into halftime. For the game, the second-year corner totaled six tackles (all solo), the interception, and a pass defended. He grabs a point in the playoff standings to pull into a second-place tie with one game to go.

4. Vita Vea (Two points)

Oh, what a return. Vita Vea fractured his ankle back on Oct. 8 in a Week 5 game against the Bears and his season was said to be done. However, leading up to the NFC Championship Game, the Bucs activated the big nose tackle from injured reserve in hopes of getting him back against the Packers. Even once it came time for Vea to play, no one really knew how many snaps he’d be available for. Well, he played 33, which was nearly half of the defensive snaps in the game—it was the second-most of any Bucs defensive lineman. And not only did Vea play, he made a major difference. As per usual, his impact didn’t show up so much in the box score, as he wasn’t credited with a tackle. But the work he did on the interior of the line helped to collapse the pocket on Aaron Rodgers time and again. He helped create opportunities for Tampa Bay’s edge rushers to get to the quarterback. It’s no small coincidence that the duo of Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul suddenly looked extremely deadly again. Vea does the dirty work, and for his ability to do so on such a big stage after missing so much time, he gets two points in the Bucs of the Playoffs Standings.

3. Jason Pierre-Paul (Three points)

Speaking of Jason Pierre-Paul, his impact on Sunday’s game certainly made a difference. The Bucs knew coming in that if they were going to have a chance in the game, they would have to get to the quarterback. And like they did in their Week 6 beatdown of the Packers, the Bucs did manage to get to Aaron Rodgers again during Sunday’s game. With five sacks and eight quarterback hits in the game, Tampa Bay did what it could to keep Rodgers uncomfortable. Pierre-Paul was a big part of that, picking up two sacks. While his first ended up being inconsequential, the second was key. He took Rodgers down near the end of the second quarter and that play caused Bruce Arians to take a timeout. On the next play, Sean Murphy-Bunting came up with an interception. And that timeout that Arians took after Pierre-Paul’s sack proved to be massive, as the Bucs scored with one second left in the half. Had he not gotten the sack, perhaps more time runs and the score looks much different heading into the locker room.

2. Chris Godwin (Four points)

While the defense had more clutch moments down the stretch, the offense obviously played its part in the victory with a 21-point first half. After a couple of uncharacteristic games in the first two rounds of the playoffs as well as another strange drop in Sunday’s game, Chris Godwin looked like Chris Godwin again. Right after that drop, he made a spectacular 52-yard catch to keep the drive going. And that was a drive that ended in a Leonard Fournette touchdown, so had Godwin not come down with that unlikely reception, the game likely looks different. He also had a key third-down catch on the team’s first drive, which also ended in a score. The fourth-year receiver was Tom Brady’s favorite target throughout the game, too, catching five passes for 110 yards on nine targets—all team-highs. All five of his catches went for first downs, with four of them coming on third down. Coming up huge on third downs was one of the main reasons why Tampa Bay earned the win, and Godwin was integral in that success. With four points in the standings, he jumps to third just like that.

1. Shaquil Barrett (Five points)

Again, the pass rush for the Bucs was the motor that kept the defense in the game against a very good Green Bay offense. Shaquil Barrett, who has been kept quiet for much of the playoffs and hasn’t reached the same heights he hit in 2019, picked a great time to have his best game of the season. Totaling three sacks and four quarterback hits, Barrett was a problem for the Packers’ offensive line. He simply couldn’t be stopped, and his ability to get to the quarterback saved Tampa Bay in the second half. When Tom Brady threw a couple of bad interceptions, the defense stepped up and didn’t let Green Bay take control of the game. After the first pick, he came up with a third-down sack on the Packers’ ensuing possesion to force a punt. Then, following another Brady interception on the next drive, Barrett earned another sack to keep Aaron Rodgers in check. The defense forced another punt on that drive, and in many ways, it was that sequence that won Tampa Bay the game. Barrett came through when the Bucs needed him most, and for that, he earns five big points to jump up into a second-place tie in the Bucs of the Playoffs Standings.

Buccaneers of the Playoffs Standings Through Championship Weekend

  1. Tom Brady — 6 points
  2. Leonard Fournette/Devin White/Sean Murphy-Bunting/Shaquil Barrett — 5 points
  3. Donovan Smith/Chris Godwin — 4 points
  4. Carlton Davis/Jason Pierre-Paul — 3 points
  5. Mike Evans/Vita Vea — 2 points
  6. Cameron Brate — 1 point