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. After getting swept by New Orleans earlier in the season, Tampa Bay finally beat the Saints, 30-20, to advance to the NFC championship game. The Bucs’ aggressive defense created four key takeaways, including three interceptions of Drew Brees, while Tom Brady scored three touchdowns and protected the ball in the long-awaited victory.
2 BIG STATEMENTS
Table of Contents
STATEMENT 1. Bucs Deliver Knockout Blow To Brees, Saints
The Saints’ stranglehold grip on the NFC South – it’s over.
Years of Drew Brees’ mastery over the Buccaneers – it’s over.
After four years of winning the division and digging a salary cap grave to try to win the NFC en route to the Super Bowl only to come out short each and every time – it’s over.
Instead of the Saints traveling to face the Green Bay Packers next Sunday in the NFC Championship Game it will be a feisty, scrappy, red-hot Buccaneers team that is coming together at just the right time – thanks to a 30-20 victory at New Orleans in Brees’ final game.
Saints QB Drew Brees – Photo by: USA Today
In a game that was reminiscent of the 2002 NFC Championship Game at Philadelphia from an emotional standpoint when the Bucs finally vanquished the Eagles, their personal tormentor back in the day and shutting the Vet down in grand style – Tampa Bay ended a five-game losing streak to New Orleans and kicked off the Brees Retirement Party earlier than the star quarterback and the Saints expected.
The Bucs served notice that the NFC South will now run through Tampa Bay in 2021, and the salary cap-strapped Saints won’t be winning the division for a fifth straight year come next season.
The Bucs proved that the third time was indeed the charm, and they finally beat the bully on Sunday. Not only did they beat the Saints, they beat them up, too.
Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting recorded the first of three Brees interceptions, shoving wide receiver Michael Thomas, who was held to zero catches by smothering press-man coverage all night, aside on his INT return. That set up a touchdown grab by Mike Evans, who was held to one catch, but Evans fought off a clingy Marshon Lattimore for a leaping, 3-yard score that gave Tampa Bay a 10-6 lead early in the second quarter.
Offensive linemen Ryan Jensen and Ali Marpet beat up linebacker Alex Anzalone and pushed around the Saints’ front seven to help pave the way for 127 yards on the ground with New Orleans native Leonard Fournette rushing for 63 yards on 17 carries (3.7 avg.) and Ronald Jones running for 62 yards on 13 carries (4.8 avg.).
Outside of a false start, right guard Aaron Stinnie, who was getting his first NFL start in place of Alex Cappa, played flawlessly up front, while left tackle Donovan Smith exorcised his demons against New Orleans and shut down Trey Hendrickson, Marcus Davenport and Carl Granderson. Rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs continued to own Cameron Jordan, rendering the Pro Bowl defensive end nearly invisible with just four tackles.
Murphy-Bunting wasn’t the only physical defender dishing out punishment and retribution in New Orleans. Inside linebacker Devin White returned to the lineup with a vengeance after missing two games with COVID-19 to record a game-high 11 tackles, in addition to a key fumble recovery in the third quarter after rookie safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. knocked the ball out of tight end Jared Cook’s hands. White advanced the fumble 18 yards to the New Orleans 40-yard line to help set up Fournette’s 6-yard touchdown catch to tie the game at 20-20.
After the Bucs built a 23-20 lead late in the fourth quarter, White stepped in front of running back Alvin Kamara to record his first interception of the year and returned it 28 yards down to the New Orleans 20, shoving Saints receiver Marcus Callaway out of the way with a vicious stiff arm. That huge interception led to Tom Brady’s 1-yard touchdown plunge that put the game away.
Bucs LB Devin White – Photo by: USA Today
“It was great,” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said. “ Just to see Devin make those plays – that’s what he’s capable of making. Everybody was criticizing how he can’t cover anybody – I think he just proved that he can.”
Reserve safety Mike Edwards sealed the win with his third interception of the season and the third against Brees on Sunday night.
At the end of the game there was no yapping from C.J. Gardner-Johnson or Lattimore. There was no flexing from Thomas. Jameis Winston’s gimmick touchdown pass on a trick play against his former team didn’t matter.
And there were tears of sadness in Brees’ eyes as he lost his final game in the worst way imaginable. Four straight playoff appearances by the Saints and not one appearance in the NFC championship game.
Any tears on Tampa Bay’s sidelines were tears of joy in New Orleans. After finally beating the bully, the Bucs are going to Green Bay to play in the NFC championship game.
“It’s a different football team than that [38-3 loss to New Orleans],” Arians said. “I try to tell everybody that – nobody wants to believe me. This is what we’re capable of playing. Defensively, we’ve had some rough spots at times, but we’ve had some really, really good times. This was one of the best times.”
STATEMENT 2. Brady Played The Near-Perfect Game He Needed To Play
In two previous losses to New Orleans earlier in the year, Tom Brady had thrown just two touchdowns and five interceptions while Drew Brees had thrown six touchdowns with no picks. That had to change on Sunday night in New Orleans for the Bucs to prevail – and it did. Not only did Tampa Bay’s defense force four takeaways, but Brady played the turnover-free game he needed to play.
“Going into the game, we knew all week we had to protect the football,” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said. “Protect the quarterback, protect the football and take it away. That was the outcome of the game [and] that was what decided the game. It was going to be the turnovers and we talked about it all week.”
Bucs QB Tom Brady – Photo by: USA Today
Brady struggled early against a stingy Saints secondary, completing just 10-of-21 passes for 93 yards and one touchdown by halftime. He would finish the game completing 18-of-33 passes for 199 yards and two passing scores, while his 1-yard touchdown on a QB sneak with 4:57 left in the fourth quarter increased Tampa Bay’s lead to 10 points and produced the final score, 30-20.
“The defense was incredible all game,” Brady said. “The turnovers were huge. Last time we played them, we lost the turnover [margin], minus three. Today was plus four – you’re not going to lose many games when you’re plus four. Just a great effort – they came up huge. Offensively, made some plays when we needed to. The running game was great, the line protected great up front – just a great week of prep. Really proud of our team and everything we put in to get to this point. There’s only four teams left – we’re one of them.”
Winning the turnover battle, 4-0, was key for Tampa Bay’s victory in New Orleans. After being sacked a total of six times in the first two losses, Brady was only sacked once, which was early in the first quarter. The Bucs offensive line did a remarkable job of giving Brady time to throw and helping Tampa Bay’s ground game rush for 127 yards against the league’s fourth-ranked rushing defense.
“Just winning our one-on-one battles,” Bucs left tackle Donovan Smith said. “We knew what it was going to be coming into the game and we just had to win our one-on-one battles – them versus us. Obviously, we came out on top. I tell you guys all the time – I rock with my guys all the time [and] they stepped up big. Big shout out to the defense – I think it was four turnovers. Any time you do complementary football to get turnovers and can come back and score and put points on the board, it’s huge.”
2 PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: What Was The Key Stat In Tampa Bay’s Win At New Orleans?
Scoring 30 points. Offensive play-caller Byron Leftwich didn’t call his best game of the year by far, but Tampa Bay’s offense faced the best defense it has gone against since Kansas City’s the week before the bye week in New Orleans. The Bucs only managed 314 yards of total offense but scored 30 points, including 21 off Saints turnovers on Sunday.
Bucs QB Tom Brady – Photo by: USA Today
It was the first time the Bucs had scored 30 or more points against the Saints since winning the 2018 season opener at New Orleans, 48-40, with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. Tampa Bay had lost five straight games to New Orleans since that victory, including the four previous games with Arians at the helm.
The Bucs averaged 30.8 points this season, which is the most in franchise history, and hit that average on Sunday when the team needed the points the most. By the way, Tampa Bay is now 10-0 this season in which it scores 30 points or more, including a 38-10 win over Green Bay in Week 6. And the Bucs have scored 30 points or more in the last five games dating back to a 31-28 come-from-behind win at Atlanta in Week 15.
QUESTION 2: Did The Bucs Really Out-Coach The Saints?
Yes – finally. We already mentioned that offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich didn’t call his best game on Sunday, but defensive coordinator Todd Bowles had one of his finest game plans of the year against a New Orleans offense that had scored 65 points in the two previous games this season. Bowles deployed a healthy dose of press-man coverage and blitzed quarterback Drew Brees often up the middle, getting him off his spot when throwing the ball.
That combination of pressure and tight coverage resulted in three key interceptions that turned out to be the difference in the Bucs’ win.
Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting – Photo by: USA Today
“I think our guys knew they had to play tight coverage,” said Bucs head coach Bruce Arians. “Coming in, we were going to play man-to-man, get on them, not let them get going and not let [Brees] dink and dunk. Get after him, get off the spot and make him throw on the move. They ran the ball pretty [well] on us there for a spurt, but once we got the lead, we kind of had them where we wanted them.”
Bucs defensive captain Devin White had a standout performance with 11 tackles, one interception and a key fumble recovery in the second half. His energy and aggressive play early on help set the tone in New Orleans.
“I think the number one thing is Todd Bowles said, ‘We’re going to be feisty, we’re going to challenge those guys’ and he’s going to take us over them,’” White said. “I said the same thing. I said, ‘Man, I’m going to take my guys over their guys.’ I know one thing – we might be young, but we can get after it when we’ve got our minds set to it. Everybody’s saying it – ‘Where’s the Tampa Bay defense from the Green Bay game?’ We were really feisty with them, we were really challenging them at the line of scrimmage and we were really getting after the quarterback. I think we had that same mentality.”
Bowles’ calling for more press-man coverage was key right from the start as cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting jammed wide receiver Michael Thomas off the line of scrimmage and was in perfect position to step in front of him and intercept Brees early in the second quarter.
“The thing of the game is that if you take the ball away more than you give it away, you win the game,” White said. “All we want to do is win the game. We knew that was going to have to come [and] we knew we were up for the challenge. At the end of the day, everybody’s energy feeds off one another. When Sean got a pick, it’s like, ‘Who’s going to get the next pick?’ You’ve just got to keep it going – it’s a momentum thing – it’s a mindset.”
Thomas, the Saints’ star receiver, was completely shut down by Murphy-Bunting and Carlton Davis III. Thanks to Bowles’ aggressive scheme and execution by the Tampa Bay secondary, Thomas was targeted four times but finished without a catch.
“Carlton [Davis III] has played him [well] over the years and he’s a physical corner,” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said. “I thought Todd had a great game-plan for all their guys. [Jared] Cook and Deonte Harris were the guys that scared me, but the guys really punched the ball out – got one [fumble] with Cook and got the interception from him. The guys really stepped up.”
2 BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: Bowles Is Hired As The Eagles’ Head Coach
Bucs OLBs coach Larry Foote – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will interview for the vacant head coaching job in Philadelphia on Monday and I believe he gets the job. Bowles, who grew up in Elizabeth City, New Jersey and went to college at Temple, is a natural regional fit, and will bring the toughness and discipline that the 4-11-1 Eagles team needs after failing to make the playoffs this year following two years of 9-7 seasons that ended with an early exit from the playoffs in the first round.
Look for outside linebackers coach Larry Foote to take over as Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator should Bowles depart. Would Bowles still be allowed to call plays in the Super Bowl should he get hired and the Bucs advance that far? Or would Foote call plays for the first time in the biggest game of his life as a coach? I’m not quite ready to make that prediction.
PREDICTION 2: The Bucs Beat The Packers – Again
Now that Tampa Bay has gained even more confidence with a 30-20 dispatching of New Orleans, look for this group of Buccaneers to be unafraid to square off again against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Green Bay – and win.
No, it won’t be 38-10 as it was in Week 6 after the Bucs scored 38 straight points to prevail, but with Tom Brady at the helm and the defense as opportunistic as ever, Tampa Bay will triumph at Lambeau Field on a snowy Sunday in the NFC championship game and become the first team in NFL history to host the Super Bowl.
“It’s tough to get to this point, so we need a big week – a great week of practice,” said Brady. “We’ve got one of the best teams in the league, obviously, in Green Bay – the top seed. Aaron is playing incredible [and] they’ve got a great defense, so it’s going to be a great match-up.”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
PewterReport.com prides itself on being the most complete, comprehensive news source covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and delivering inside scoop on the team found nowhere else.