NFL: Tom Brady takes Tampa Bay Buccaneers to NFC championship game

Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady
Image Credit: AP

Tom Brady plays on, seeking immediate Super Bowl glory with his new team.

Drew Brees goes home for what is widely expected to be the final time in his storied NFL career, denied a Super Bowl stage for what was probably his pro football farewell.

Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers advanced to the NFC championship game by beating Brees and the Saints, 30-20, in a divisional play-off game on Sunday in New Orleans.

Brady prevailed in the highly anticipated quarterback duel for the ages (or perhaps for the aged) at the Superdome and continues to chase a seventh career Super Bowl title in his first season with the Buccaneers after two decades and six Super Bowl victories with the New England Patriots. He and the fifth-seeded Buccaneers ended the season for the second-seeded Saints and potentially sent Brees into retirement.

“I’m going to give myself an opportunity to think about the season, think about a lot of things, just like I did last year, and make a decision,” Brees said in a postgame video news conference.

The Buccaneers will face the top-seeded on Packers January 24 at Green Bay. It will be Brady versus another all-time quarterback great, Aaron Rodgers, in the first NFC championship game that Rodgers will play in the friendly and frigid confines of Lambeau Field.

“We’re going to have to play our very best,” said Brady, whose team advanced to a conference championship game for the 14th time in his career, “to beat one of the best teams in the league.”

Neither Brady nor Brees was stellar Sunday. Brady threw two touchdown passes and completed 18 of 33 passes for a relatively modest 199 yards. He scored a fourth-quarter rushing touchdown on a quarterback sneak.

That was far better than Brees, who threw three interceptions in a 19-for-34, 134-yard outing. He did throw a touchdown pass. The Saints also got a first-half touchdown pass by backup Jameis Winston on a gadget play. But their four turnovers led to 21 points for the Buccaneers, who turned things around after losing their two regular season meetings with the Saints by 72-26, combined.

“It’s hard to beat a team that’s in the play-offs and that’s in this divisional round of the play-offs when you have that lopsided of a turnover ratio,” Saints Coach Sean Payton said.

It has not been an entirely smooth ride for Brady and the Buccaneers since his relocation to Florida last March in free agency. His adjustment to his new team and so many unfamiliar teammates was hindered by the NFL cancelling off-season practices and the entire preseason amid the coronavirus pandemic.

There were moments during the season when the Buccaneers looked more pretender than contender. But they’re playing well now. The Buccaneers can become the first NFL team to play a Super Bowl on its home field, with the game scheduled for Feb. 7 at Raymond James Stadium.

“This is [how] we’re capable of playing,” Buccaneers Coach Bruce Arians said. “Defensively we’ve had some rough spots at times. But we’ve had some really, really good times. And this is one of the best times.”

Meanwhile, Brees’s retirement decision looms. He turned 42 on Friday. He was still the youngster of his matchup with the 43-year-old Brady. Many expect Brees to walk away from the sport and head to the broadcast booth, while Brady appears intent upon playing more. Fox reported before the game that Brees’s retirement once the Saints were done in this postseason was certain.

“I think that’s probably for another press conference,” Payton said, “and I can’t speak for Drew … Obviously he’s been tremendous for this team, this city. I could go on and on. But let’s wait and answer that at the right time.”

It was a trying season for Brees; he missed four games with rib fractures and a collapsed lung. Brees, Payton and the Saints failed in their bid to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2009 season.

“I’d say this season I probably had to fight through more than I’ve ever had to in any other season in my career, from injury to all the COVID stuff to just crazy circumstances,” Brees said. “And it was worth every moment, absolutely.”

Brees was seen glancing back at the Superdome scene as he exited the field after the game and headed up the tunnel to the locker room.

“I always soak in the moment,” Brees said. “I’m looking up at my family and I’m blowing kisses to my wife and my daughter and fist-bumping my boys.”

The Saints had been back to something approximating full strength on offence this postseason. They played Sunday without all-purpose standout Taysom Hill and reserve running back Latavius Murray, both injured and on the game-day inactive list. But for a second straight game, Brees had wide receiver Michael Thomas and tailback Alvin Kamara at his disposal. It was not enough. Kamara ran for 85 yards, and Thomas was held without a catch.

The game was tied at 13 after a first half in which Winston stole the show. He entered the game for a second-quarter trick play against his former team. He lined up at wide receiver and ended up with the ball after a shotgun snap to Kamara and a handoff to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Winston took the ball on a flip from Sanders, set his feet and delivered an on-target throw to wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith for a 56-yard touchdown.

The Saints otherwise were limited in the half to two field goals by kicker Will Lutz. They had a touchdown on a punt return nullified by a penalty. Brees threw a pass that cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting intercepted and set up the Buccaneers’ lone first-half touchdown, scored on a three-yard pass from Brady to wide receiver Mike Evans.

Brees threw a third-quarter touchdown pass to Smith, then the Buccaneers cashed in on a fumble lost by Saints tight end Jared Cook to pull even on Brady’s touchdown throw to running back Leonard Fournette. The Buccaneers finished with 10 fourth-quarter points on a Ryan Succop field goal and Brady’s sneak after linebacker Devin White’s interception.

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