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Bucs of the Playoffs: at Saints

Having lost five straight games to the Saints dating back to 2018, the Buccaneers had a big hurdle to clear on Sunday night in New Orleans if they wanted to get to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since the 2002 Super Bowl season.

Thanks to a phenomenal defensive effort and some opportunistic offense, that hurdle has been left in the dust. Tampa Bay used four total turnovers and a 17-7 second-half run to win the game 30-20, sending its NFC South rivals home for the offseason in emphatic fashion. The Bucs will now head to Lambeau Field for a Sunday afternoon matchup against Aaron Rodgers in the Packers with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line. That’s right, the Bucs are one win away from playing for the Lombardi Trophy in their home stadium.

Before we move on to next Sunday’s massive NFC title game between Tampa Bay and Green Bay, we have some Buccaneers of the Playoffs points to award! It’s time to see where things stand after two playoff games.

If anyone’s new around here for the playoffs, here’s how this works: I’ll rank the top five Buccaneers from each week’s game, assigning point values for each. No. 5 gets one point, No. 4 gets two and so on. The cumulative totals will be added up in the Buccaneers of the Playoffs Standings. For reference, the past Buccaneers of the Year winners are as follows: Mike Evans (2018), Shaquil Barrett (2019) and Tom Brady (2020). OK, let’s get it going.

Ronald Jones battled through a couple of injuries to play exceptionally well against the Saints, rushing 13 times for 62 yards (4.8 yards per carry)… Cameron Brate finished the night as the Bucs’ leading receiver, catching four of his five targets for 50 yards… Tyler Johnson and Scotty Miller only had one catch each, but they were clutch plays when the Bucs needed them most. On the fourth-quarter field goal drive that gave Tampa Bay a 23-20 lead that it wouldn’t look back on, Johnson made an outstanding 15-yard grab on 3rd & 11 to keep the offense on the field, then Miller made a 29-yard catch on 3rd & 5 to set up the eventual field goal… The Buccaneer offensive line was very good once again this week, allowing just one sack and three quarterback hits. Aaron Stinnie, taking the place of the injured Alex Cappa at right guard, did great job in his first career start. Ryan Jensen was especially impressive throughout the night, too, as was Tristan Wirfs. Wirfs once again shut down Cameron Jordan, doing so for the third time in his rookie season…

Antoine Winfield Jr. barely misses out on a top-five spot this week after racking up six tackles (five solo) and a key forced fumble that completely turned the game’s momentum in the Bucs’ favor… Ndamukong Suh was an overlooked factor in the middle of the Bucs defensive line, continuing to look great at 34 years old… Mike Edwards came through with the game-sealing interception on a tipped ball, impressively getting those Jordan 1 cleats in-bounds… Steve McLendon picked up two quarterback hits… Ryan Succop delivered another reliable performance for the Bucs, connecting on field goals from 26, 37 and 36 yards out while also nailing all three of his extra point attempts.

Sunday night’s game wasn’t one for the ages in terms of Tom Brady’s stat line, but it didn’t have to be. Brady was brought to Tampa for these types of games, where his experience and intelligence would help the team overcome some tough moments. He threw for 199 yards and two touchdowns on 18-of-33 passing while also adding a game-clinching rushing touchdown, but his impact on the game was about so much more than his statistics. He took advantage of his offensive line giving him a clean pocket, only getting sacked once and managing to play a clean game against a strong defense that has gotten to him this season. After throwing five of his 12 regular season interceptions against the Saints, he didn’t turn the ball over once in this monumental NFC Divisional Round game, keeping his cool after the Bucs’ slow start and leading the way for the offense after the team’s defense provided some short fields to work with. In just one season, Brady has taken the Bucs from 7-9 to being one of the last four teams standing in the playoffs. How’s that for anyone who thought he was just a product of Bill Belichick’s system? He grabs a point this week to maintain his lead atop the Bucs of the Playoffs Standings.

Not long ago, you could practically hear a collective groan on Twitter any time Leonard Fournette got the football for the Bucs. Oh, how quickly things can change. The man they’re now calling “Playoff Lenny” stepped up again for Tampa Bay this week after carrying the load in last week’s win over Washington due to Ronald Jones’ injury. With Jones still appearing to be limited and battling through the pain this week, Fournette ran 17 times for 63 yards against the Saints while catching a team-high five passes for 44 yards and a game-tying touchdown in the third quarter. He fought for the tough yards when the Bucs needed him to, plus he provided Brady with a nice outlet when guys were covered downfield. In a game where Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski combined for just 61 yards on seven receptions, Fournette’s impact on the passing game can’t be overstated. Despite his pass-catching struggles that have surfaced at times throughout the season, Brady continues to trust him and he’s paying off that trust by playing a major role in Tampa Bay’s offensive success.

The Buccaneer defense was flying all over the field on Sunday night, making big play after big play to send New Orleans packing before it could get a chance to win Drew Brees a Super Bowl on his way out of the NFL. While he didn’t necessarily have a big splash play that you can point to as a memorable moment, Carlton Davis was fantastic in the Bucs’ 30-20 win. He totaled just one tackle and one pass defended, but his coverage of Michael Thomas was so good that he didn’t have many chances to do anything more. Thomas was targeted just four times in the game and didn’t manage to pick up a single catch, with Davis on him for 20 cover snaps and three targets. For Tampa Bay’s No. 1 corner, that’s three games this season that he has locked down a man whose Twitter handle is “@cantguardmike.” Maybe some others can’t guard him, but Davis has certainly proved that he can. Despite getting the toughest assignments week in and week out, the 2018 second-round pick has been Pro Bowl caliber for the Bucs all season long, and Sunday night was just the latest example of that.

Whereas Davis may not have had the big splash plays, Sean Murphy-Bunting definitely did. He helped turn the tide early for Tampa Bay by jumping a Drew Brees pass intended for Michael Thomas and picking it off for his second interception in as many weeks. He became just the second Buc in franchise history to intercept a pass in back-to-back playoff games, joining Ring of Honor member Ronde Barber, who was the only other player to do so. The interception gave the Bucs a short field to work with, and the next play was a three-yard touchdown that gave the team its first lead of the night. Overall, Murphy-Bunting totaled five tackles (all solo), a tackle for loss, two passes defended and that interception, earning an 86.4 grade from Pro Football Focus—the highest of any Buc in Sunday’s game. Plus, the second-year corner delivered a perfect answer to Michael Thomas’ quiet night when asked about it after the game. It was a mixture of the second-year corner taking the high road while also getting his point across, and it was a pretty great example of why many find the 23-year-old so easy to root for. With another great playoff performance, he earns four points and a top-three spot in the Bucs of the Playoffs Standings.

Devin White had to miss the Bucs’ Wild Card Round victory over Washington last week and you could just tell by him live tweeting the game and his excitement in the week leading up to this matchup against the Saints that he was more than ready for his first shot at playoff football. He got his first crack at the postseason spotlight on Sunday night and he absolutely refused to waste it. Playing like a man possessed, White led the Bucs in tackles with 11 (10 solo), including one for a loss. He also brought the splash plays that the defense needed to rattle Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense. The first was the third-quarter recovery of a fumble forced by Antoine Winfield Jr. that led to Tampa Bay tying the game at 20 heading into the final quarter. Then, with the Bucs leading 23-20 late in the fourth, White jumped a Brees pass and intercepted it to set up an insurance touchdown that essentially put the game away. As Bruce Arians said after the game, White has been criticized for his pass coverage ability this season, but he went out and proved his worth on Sunday night. His MVP-type performance helped carry the defense, and it nets him the full five points in this week’s standings, launching him into a second-place tie for the playoffs.

Buccaneers of the Playoffs Standings Through Divisional Weekend

  1. Tom Brady — 6 points
  2. Leonard Fournette/Devin White — 5 points
  3. Donovan Smith/Sean Murphy-Bunting — 4 points
  4. Carlton Davis — 3 points
  5. Mike Evans — 2 points
  6. Cameron Brate — 1 point

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