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Defense stars as Tampa Bay Buccaneers reach conference championship in Tom Brady’s first season in NFC

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed quarterback Tom Brady in the offseason for moments like this: to go head-to-head with a New Orleans Saints team that has had an unrelenting grip on the NFC South; to get the Bucs back to the postseason for the first time in 13 years; and to become the first team in NFL history to host a hometown Super Bowl.

The Bucs are one step away from completing that trilogy.

In the second stop of a playoff odyssey that began with a wild-card game on the road — a first in Brady’s 21-year career — Tampa Bay defeated New Orleans 30-20 on Sunday night.

Up next: Lambeau Field, against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game. It will be Brady’s 14th conference title game and the Bucs’ fourth — after most recently defeating the Philadelphia Eagles 27-10 on the road en route to winning Super Bowl XXXVII following the 2002 season.

“Just so proud of everyone, the whole organization,” said Brady, acknowledging the challenges of no preseason while playing in a new offense with so many new pieces. “Our coaches have put in so much work and effort getting us to this point, preparing us every day, and just done an amazing job.

“Guys really come together. It’s a really unique team. We have great chemistry. We have fun at practice. We worked really hard to get to this point, just like the other three teams remaining.”

The Saints had swept the Bucs in the regular season, outscoring Tampa Bay by 46 points in two games.

“We had to look ourselves in the mirror and challenge ourselves on who we wanted to be,” said Bucs inside linebacker Devin White, who finished Sunday with 11 tackles (10 solo), a tackle for a loss, a QB hit, a pass breakup, a fumble recovery and an interception. “Everybody always asked, ‘What was our identity?’ We didn’t have an answer. But Coach BA [Bruce Arians] had an answer. He said, ‘We’re some motherf—ers who are gonna find a way to win the game.'”

Arians offered his take.

“This is a different football team than [the one that lost to the Saints 38-3 in Week 9],” the coach said. “I’ve tried telling everybody, but nobody wants to believe me — but this is the way we’re capable of playing 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.”

At New Orleans on Sunday, Brady completed 18 of 33 passes for 199 yards to go along with two touchdowns through the air, one TD on the ground and no interceptions. He is now 3-5 against Saints quarterback Drew Brees, although defense and the ground game told the story. The Saints frequently lined up with deep safeties, focusing on preventing big plays downfield.

Bucs running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones combined for 169 yards from scrimmage. Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas was held without a catch, and the Bucs got three takeaways that led to touchdowns.

“The way the defense played today — they were spectacular,” Brady said. “The way the offensive line played, Leonard, Ro — it was just huge. All those guys came up big. We talked about it all week, what we were gonna need to win, to get it accomplished — and it’s a long ways from the last time we played these guys at home and certainly [from where] we started the season here. It’s a lot better feeling sitting in this tent this time around than the first time I was sitting here about 18 weeks ago.”

Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting picked off Brees on a pass intended for Thomas in the second quarter, returning it 36 yards to the New Orleans 3-yard line. Then Bucs wideout Mike Evans punctuated the possession with a 3-yard touchdown — his first catch of the season against Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

In the third quarter, Bucs rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. dislodged the ball from the hands of Saints tight end Jared Cook, with White scooping it up and returning it 18 yards. Fournette then caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from Brady on a slant route.

In the fourth quarter, White picked off Brees on a pass intended for New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara, with Brady eventually sneaking it in for a 1-yard score. Later, Bucs safety Mike Edwards picked off a throw from Brees that was tipped by Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David.

“It was always in the back of my mind how they embarrassed us,” Fournette said, referring to that 38-3 loss to the Saints, which Tampa Bay tight end Cam Brate described as “rock bottom” and several others called the low point of the season.

While Sunday’s outing marked Brady’s 14th win in a divisional playoff game, it was just his second divisional win on the road — in his first season in the NFC.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur noted how much his players fed off having fans in their stadium on Saturday against the Los Angeles Rams for a game in which MVP favorite Aaron Rodgers gave a performance for the ages against the league’s No. 1 defense.

Green Bay wide receiver Davante Adams even proclaimed, “Nobody can stop us.”

The Bucs did, however, in Week 6, stunning the Packers 38-10 at home, sacking Rodgers four times, intercepting him twice and holding Green Bay to a season-low single touchdown.

That same Packers team scored on each of its first five possessions on Saturday, in Rodgers’ eighth playoff game in which he was responsible for at least three touchdowns, passing Brett Favre for third most in NFL history.

The Bucs achieved some history of their own on Sunday, becoming the ninth team in the league and the first since the New York Giants in 2007 to defeat an opponent in the playoffs after being swept by it in the regular season.

Brady is a career 9-4 in league championship games, but he is 3-3 in those games on the road. Brady also is 4-2 all time against the Packers and 1-1 at Lambeau, while Rodgers has lost three straight conference championships.

“It’s hard to get to this point,” Brady said. “There’s nothing guaranteed from this point forward. But we’ve gotta go out there and we’ve gotta play our very best to beat one of the best teams in the league.”



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