It’s time for PewterReport.com’s 2-Point Conversion post-game column, which features two statements, two questions and two predictions based on the latest Bucs game. Tampa Bay won its first postseason game since its Super Bowl win during the 2002 season, winning its wild card game at Washington, 31-23. Bucs quarterback Tom Brady was great, leading the offense with 381 yards and two touchdowns, and Tampa Bay got a great fill-in performance from Leonard Fournette to make up for a shaky outing from the defense against backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke.
2 BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1. Bucs Can Only Go As Far As Brady Can Take Them
On a night when Tom Brady became the oldest NFL player to throw a touchdown pass in the postseason, he showed he is still good enough to carry a team through a hard-fought, 31-23 playoff win at Washington. Brady entered Saturday night’s game at age 43 and 159 days for the 11-5 Buccaneers in a slugfest against a 7-9 Washington Football Team with a backup quarterback, whereas George Blanda was 43 years old and 108 days when he played in the 1970 AFC Championship Game.
The future Hall of Famer not only guided Tampa Bay to its first postseason win since Super Bowl XXXLVII on January 26, 2003, but he set several franchise records in doing so. Brady completed 22-of-40 passes for 381 yards, which was the most in team history in the postseason, and two touchdowns in a game that the Bucs never trailed. In fact, Tampa Bay hasn’t trailed in any quarter in each of its last three games.
The Bucs amassed a playoff-record 507 yards and scored the second-most points in the postseason in team history outside of the team’s 48-21 win over Oakland in the Super Bowl. Brady could have thrown for 450 yards had his receivers not dropped so many passes. Tampa Bay would need every yard and every point to beat a stingy Washington team that got a great performance from backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who passed for 306 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for 46 yards and another score to keep the Football Team in the game throughout the night.
Brady’s night would’ve been better if not for a very uncharacteristic performance from Chris Godwin, who dropped five of the 12 passes that came his way, yet managed to hang on to five of them for 79 yards and a touchdown. Brady’s two most reliable targets in the nation’s capital wound up being wide receiver Mike Evans, who shook off a knee injury to finish with six catches for 119 yards, and tight end Cameron Brate, who hauled in four catches for 80 yards. Evans’ 119 yards were the most by any Bucs receiver in postseason history.
“Anytime the ball goes to Chris, it’s [usually] automatic,” said Bucs head coach Arians. “That one big [drop] to start the second half was huge. Cam came up huge – he’s had a hell of a year for us. Byron [Leftwich] does a great job of getting him matched up.”
Wide receiver Antonio Brown was limited to just two catches for 49 yards, but caught a 36-yard touchdown pass, Brady’s first of the night, and also had a 22-yard gain on an end around.
The most surprising development of the game was running back Leonard Fournette filling in for Ronald Jones II, who was active but sat out with a quadriceps injury. Fournette rushed for 93 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries and caught all four of the passes thrown his way for 39 yards. On a night without Jones and LeSean McCoy, who missed the game with an illness, Fournette had to carry the load, especially after rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn fumbled in the third quarter after rushing for 21 yards on five carries.
“It was cool, but that’s my job – it’s filling in for ‘Ro,’” Fournette said. “It’s been an up-and-down season for me. I think this year tested my [humility]. Coming from being the whole offense to being a minor piece, it’s off and on for me. I just kept faith and they believed in me.”
Tampa Bay’s offensive line did a fantastic job in powering the ground game to 142 yards and 4.9-yard rushing average, while protecting Brady for most of the game. Left tackle Donovan Smith played one of his best games on Saturday night, holding Washington rookie defensive end Chase Young to just three tackles, two QB pressures and no sacks. The Bucs O-line surrendered three sacks, but two came from Washington defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne against Ted Larsen, who filled in at right guard for Alex Cappa, who suffered a fractured ankle in the game.
“They did a great job,” Brady said. “Those guys played their butts off. Tristan [Wirfs] did a great job, and Donnie played a hell of a game. It’s a great front – just a big, aggressive defense. They played well. They played hard. It was a good test for us.”
Arians echoed that sentiment.
“I think it was the biggest storyline of the week, just because one guy says, ‘I want Tom,’” Arians said. “They’ve got a great front. Our guys took it to heart – they were going to block them. I thought we blocked them really, really well. They didn’t scare us.”
After Washington’s last touchdown closed the gap to 28-23 late in the game, Tampa Bay’s offensive line held up long enough for Brady to heave a perfect, 35-yard pass to Evans for a big gain and a first down. On a night when Evans came through with some clutch catches, none might have been bigger than that one.
“It’s a huge night for him. We always say how tough he is – he was probably 85 [to] 90 percent, which for Mike, that’s great. He played most of the season at 70 [percent healthy]. We had that one go off his fingertips that I thought he was going to get, but I can’t say enough about him gutting it out and playing great.”
A 13-yard run by Fournette helped get the Bucs into field goal range where Ryan Succop would connect on a 37-yard field goal to seal the win with 2:49 left in regulation. Succop made all four of his field goals and connected on his final two extra points after his first attempt was blocked.
Tampa Bay entered the game averaging 30.8 points this season and hit that average, scoring at least 30 points in nine of the team’s 17 games in 2020. The Bucs are now 12-0 in games in which they score 25 points or more, and next week will be a much tougher challenge as the team will travel to New Orleans to face the Saints for a third time this season, or host the Los Angeles Rams at Raymond James Stadium again, depending on the outcome of Sunday’s New Orleans vs. Chicago playoff game.
The Bucs scored just 23 points in the season-opening loss at New Orleans and only three in the rematch in Tampa Bay on Sunday Night Football, while losing to the Rams, 27-24. With the Bucs defense not playing well in Washington, Tampa Bay will only go as far as Brady, who made his 42nd postseason start, takes them in the next round – and it seems like scoring at least 30 points again is a must.
STATEMENT 2. Bucs Defense Not Good Enough To Advance
The Bucs defense is not good enough for this team to win the Super Bowl. It’s not good enough to stop New Orleans, which has scored 34 and 38 points against Tampa Bay in two previous meetings, nor is it good enough to beat the Packers again – this time in Green Bay, assuming the Pack advance to the NFC Championship Game in a few weeks.
In a 31-23 win at Washington, Todd Bowles’ troops had a difficult time stopping Heinicke, who threw for 306 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for 46 yards and another score. Heinicke, a fourth-year undrafted free agent out of Old Dominion, was starting just his second NFL game because Alex Smith couldn’t go due to a calf injury.
“He was very elusive,” Arians said. “We knew he was going to scramble around [and] there was going to be bootlegs and scrambles. We were really hoping for Alex because we knew that part of the game wasn’t going to be in there. He got out of some really good spots and he made some really good plays. He had a lot of poise.”
Heinicke was Washington’s leading rusher, as Tampa Bay’s top-ranked rushing defense did a good job holding Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic to 36 yards rushing and a touchdown on 16 carries (2.3 avg.), and a combined four catches for 12 yards. But Heinicke made the Bucs defense look silly on a couple of scrambles, including a 13-yarder and an 8-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to shrink Tampa Bay’s lead to 18-16, while breaking containment.
“It was definitely a challenge just containing him and keeping him in the pocket because he’s very mobile,” said Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who had an interception on a tipped pass in the first quarter. “We just had to adjust on the fly, play ball, keep him contained and make plays.”
Murphy-Bunting was beaten by Steven Sims, Jr. on a perfectly thrown 11-yard touchdown pass from Heinicke with 4:51 left in regulation to cut Tampa Bay’s lead to 28-23. After Succop’s 37-yard field goal increased the Bucs’ lead to eight points at 31-23, linebacker Lavonte David closed the door on any comeback attempt by Heinicke with a huge 11-yard sack to force a fourth-and-21 situation that Washington did not convert. David, who was playing in the first playoff game of his nine-year career, led the Bucs defense, which was playing without Devin White, with nine tackles.
“It was great because we were tackling like shit the whole game,” Arians said. “We finally got him when it mattered. I don’t think it’s the best our defense has played – it was terrible up until the last eight minutes.”
Wide receiver Cam Sims finished with 104 yards on seven catches, while Terry McLaurin had six receptions for 75 yards and tight end Logan Thomas hauled in five passes for 74 yards. Murphy-Bunting and cornerback Jamel Dean struggled in coverage, and even Carlton Davis III, who returned from a groin injury that cost him the last two games of the regular season, gave up some catches he usually prevents.
Safety Jordan Whitehead dropped a red zone interception that hit him between the numbers, and Tampa Bay’s pass rush struggled to get home, recording only two sacks despite the return of Shaquil Barrett. Jason Pierre-Paul, who is struggling with a knee injury, and Barrett combined for just five tackles, two tackles-for-loss, one QB hit and one pass breakup.
The lack of pass rush – even when blitzing – coupled with lackluster pass coverage nearly spelled doom for the Bucs against a lesser opponent like Washington, which averaged just over 20 points per game. So what’s going to happen against a much better offense next week?
The Bucs finished the 2020 season 11-0 against teams with a losing record. But next week’s opponent – whether it’s New Orleans or Los Angeles – won’t have a losing record and will have even more firepower for Bowles’ unit to deal with.
“Well, we’ll see when we play next week,” Arians said. “No, this performance defensively, it wouldn’t be [good enough to win]. Offensively, it would be. We’ll show up and see. I think some of our guys – I don’t think veterans did, but some of our younger guys – might have relaxed when Alex Smith wasn’t playing. I kind of kept preaching at them, ‘This kid can run, he can do a lot of things.’ He almost beat us with his legs. I’m never going to apologize for winning, and next week’s next week.”
2 PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: What Was Up With Godwin’s Drops?
Who saw that coming? Godwin had a forgettable night in his first ever playoff game, finishing with as many drops – five – as he had catches. While Godwin did score a key touchdown in the first half to help the Bucs build a 15-7 lead in the second quarter that would turn into an 18-7 lead at halftime.
Chris Godwin is the first player with 4 drops in a playoff game since Brian Westbrook against the Saints on Jan. 13, 2007.
Godwin is coming off a game in which he caught five of seven targets for 133 yards and two scores in last week’s 44-27 win over Atlanta, which was his best performance of the season. Godwin is still playing with pins in his broken finger, but that hasn’t seemed to affect him in recent weeks. Perhaps it was the cold weather in Washington, D.C. that led to Godwin’s drops.
Nevertheless, I doubt Godwin has a repeat performance of Saturday night next week. He can’t afford to if the Bucs want to win in the NFC divisional playoffs and advance to the conference championship game.
QUESTION 2: Why Did Arians Go For Two After The Bucs’ Second TD?
I have no idea, and it was a dumb move. After Succop’s blocked extra point attempt in the first quarter following Tampa Bay’s first touchdown, Arians decided it was a good idea to chase those points in the second quarter for some foolish reason and go for a two-point conversion after Godwin’s touchdown. Instead of taking a nine-point lead and going up 16-7, which would have given the Bucs a two-possession advantage, Fournette slipped on the two-point conversion run and left Tampa Bay with an eight-point lead.
Washington would draw within eight points – which is a touchdown and a two-point conversion away from tying the game – in the third quarter, and then pulled to within two points, 18-16, a few minutes later. Had Arians had Succop kick the extra point after Godwin’s score, the Bucs would have had a three-point lead entering the fourth quarter and would have finished the game with a nine-point advantage.
It doesn’t make sense to chase points with a two-point conversion until you absolutely need to in the fourth quarter. Arians’ decision cost the Bucs what could have been a crucial point. Thankfully for Tampa Bay, eight points was enough to get the long-awaited postseason win.
2 BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: Stinnie Starts At Right Guard Next Week
With Cappa fracturing his ankle midway through the Bucs’ 31-23 win, Larsen, a 33-year old veteran, who has played in Tampa Bay and for Arians out in Arizona, filled in at right guard and gave up two big sacks to Da’Ron Payne. The Bucs can’t win with the undersized Larsen, who is 6-foot-2, 307 pounds, going up against the likes of New Orleans’ dynamic duo of Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata or Los Angeles’ terrific tandem of Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers.
Seldom used reserve Aaron Stinnie has played in 30 snaps this season, including 25 in the second half at Detroit, and has a 74.7 overall grade from Pro Football Focus, including an 84.4 pass protection grade. Veteran Joe Haeg, who has a 55.4 grade from PFF this year, got the start at left guard for Ali Marpet in Week 9 against New Orleans and struggled mightily. Despite his lack of experience, Stinnie might be the better option over Larsen, who struggled with a 51.1 overall grade and a 33.9 pass blocking grade against Washington.
PREDICTION 2: Bucs Won’t Beat The Saints
While I believe Tampa Bay could beat Los Angeles in the divisional round of the playoffs if Chicago could somehow upset New Orleans, I think the Saints prevail on Sunday, beating the Bears and setting up a third game between the Saints and the Bucs this year. While Tampa Bay would love to get a chance at redemption for losing to New Orleans, 38-3, at home on Sunday Night Football, the Saints have the bully mentality over the Bucs.
Sean Payton and Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen have won all four games against Arians and Bowles, primarily because the Bucs have been out-coached by the Saints. I have faith that the Brady-led offense can put up 30 points against a stout Saints defense, but I don’t have faith that the Bucs defense can stop the Saints offense, nor do I think that Tampa Bay’s coaching staff can out-coach New Orleans’ staff.
Prove me wrong, Buccaneers, and I’ll pick you to win the NFC championship game.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com
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