Opinion: NFL playoff win over Washington best example of why Tampa Bay wanted Tom Brady
LANDOVER, Md. — And that is why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went out and got Tom Brady.
Not just so the most decorated quarterback in NFL history could help them end their 13-year playoff drought (the longest in the NFC and the second-longest futility streak behind Cleveland's 18 years of suffering). But so his magic could rub off on his teammates once they actually got into the playoffs.
Saturday night outside of the Nation’s capital, the 43-year-old Brady laughed in the face of Father Time yet again and helped lead the Bucs to a 31-23 victory over the Washington Football Team at FedExField for Tampa’s first postseason victory since the 2002 season.
With Bill Belichick and Brady’s old pals in New England watching from home, and with peers (like Philip Rivers, who lost to Buffalo earlier in the day) showing their age, Brady turned in a vintage performance with his new team. He completed 22 of 40 passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns and no turnovers, and directed a late-fourth-quarter game-clinching drive to advance the Buccaneers to the Divisional round.
In typical Brady fashion, the quarterback wasn’t completely satisfied. The Bucs were 1-for-5 in the red zone, and had to settle for field goals four of those trips inside the 20. He remarked that as the postseason continues, the challenges will intensify, so Tampa’s offense will have to score more touchdowns.
The Buccaneers followed quarterback Tom Brady right into the second round of the NFL playoffs. (Photo: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY Sports)
But Brady conceded he and his teammates were successful in their main objective.
“Well, you could win 100 to nothing and it’s going to be the same result in the end,” he said. “You’d love to play great every game. I think it’s good to win and advance. If we don’t play well next week, we’re not going to be happy. Glad we won, glad we’ve got another week of work, and we’ll try to go in there and do a much better job and get ready for whoever our opponent is. It’s going to be a good one, and we’ll have to play great football.”
While Brady saw room for improvement (as did his coach Bruce Arians, who expressed displeasure with the defensive outing), the quarterback was indeed the difference-maker in a game that proved much closer than anticipated given the disparities (on paper) between Tampa Bay and Washington.
All season, the Buccaneers have ranked among teams considered by many as potential Super Bowl contenders because of their potent offense and talented defense.
Washington, meanwhile, entered the postseason as the feel-good story — a squad that after a dismal start to the season rallied behind their coach, Ron Rivera, who beat cancer in-season, and their Comeback Player of the Year shoo-in quarterback Alex Smith to finish strong and win the beleaguered NFC East with a 7-9 record.
But Smith’s inspirational quest came to an end Saturday afternoon, when after nursing the same strained calf that forced him to miss Weeks 15 and 16, he was ruled out. That left Taylor Heinicke, a third-year journeyman out of Old Dominion, to make only the second start of his career.
Washington Football Team QB Taylor Heinicke dived into the end zone for a second-half TD. (Photo: Al Drago, AP)
Heinicke acquitted himself well, passing for 306 yards and a touchdown and interception, and had Washington in the game in the final minutes. But even had Smith played, it was believed all along that for Washington to have a chance, they would need a ferocious effort from their defense. That unit led by rookie Chase Young drew attention this week after the Ohio State product declared “I want Tom Brady,” once the team qualified for the playoffs.
Tampa Bay’s offensive linemen took that as a challenge, and held Young without a sack, although Washington did sack Brady three times.
But Brady largely appeared unaffected by Washington’s rush, particularly in the first half as he set an early tone for his team. He got rid of the ball quickly and kept the chains moving. He carved up Washington’s zone defense, and he picked his spots when to go deep.
In the first half, Brady connected with receivers Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin for touchdown passes of 36 and 27 yards.
“C’mon, that’s Tom Brady!” running back Leonard Fournette exclaimed when asked about his quarterback’s effectiveness against a vaunted defensive front. “I ain't have to say too much about that. That’s the boy. We’ve got faith in him. We’re going to protect our butts off to make sure he can make those throws. That’s our job.”
Two of the most important factors in a close game, which saw Tampa nurse a two-point lead early in the fourth quarter, were Brady’s effectiveness on third downs (the Bucs converted seven of 14 for first downs) and his proficiency in taking care of the ball.
That’s another reason the Buccaneers coveted Brady. The offense, directed by Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich already was known for big plays. Jameis Winston passed for 5,000 yards and 33 touchdowns a year ago. But he also threw 30 interceptions. So, Bucs brass opted to move on from the first-overall pick of the 2015 draft, and bring in Brady, who during the regular season threw 40 touchdown passes and just 12 interceptions.
Ball security went a long way to ensuring Tampa protected its early lead. And then, the late-game effectiveness that Brady made a living on during his time in New England manifested itself with the game on the line.
Washington had pulled within 28-23 with 4:51 left. But there never was a sense of panic on the visitors sideline.
Brady directed a seven-play, 58-yard drive capped by a 37-yard Ryan Succop field goal to make it a two-score game again.
Tampa’s first playoff victory since their Super Bowl in 2002 brought a degree of relief, tight end Cameron Brate said. But he and his teammates, didn’t waste time with grand celebrations. It’s onto the next round (they’ll play either New Orleans or Los Angeles), which is just another step to the ultimate goal, which they hope to experience, and which Brady knows well.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.
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