NEW ORLEANS — Tom Brady’s best game in three tries against New Orleans kept the Buccaneers moving on in the NFL playoffs, and has Saints quarterback Drew Brees headed home — perhaps for good.
Brady and the Bucs’ offense turned three of four Saints turnovers into touchdowns and Tampa Bay beat New Orleans 30-20 in the divisional round of the playoffs Sunday night.
Two of those touchdowns came on short passes to Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette. And after linebacker Devin White snagged the second of thee interceptions thrown by Brees, Brady drove the Bucs to the 1, from where he scored himself with 4:57 left to virtually ensure his 14th trip to a conference championship game — his first in the NFC.
That game will take place in Green Bay next week, where the 43-year-old Brady will try to advance to his 10th Super Bowl in a showdown with Packers All-Pro QB Aaron Rodgers.
“We worked hard to get to this point. Two road playoff wins is pretty sweet,” Brady said. “We’ve got to go beat a great football team we know pretty well. Aaron’s playing incredible.”
Meanwhile, the Brees era in New Orleans could be over after 15 seasons.
While just 3,750 tickets were distributed in the 73,000-seat Superdome to comply with local COVID-19 restrictions, the fans made themselves heard with an eruption of cheers when the 42-year-old Brees first took the field for New Orleans (13-5), seemingly sensing this could be their last chance to see him play at home.
Brees, under contract for one more year, declined to say whether he’s retiring. After he’d changed in the locker room, he walked back onto the field and watched his four children play, at one point sharing a long embrace with his wife, Brittany.
“I appreciate all that this game has given to me,” Brees said. “There are obviously so many incredible memories.”
If it was his last game, it won’t be one he’ll want to remember. The NFL’s all-time leader in completions and yards passing was 19 of 34 for 134 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
“A couple of them I probably shouldn’t have thrown and maybe forced it,” Brees said. “That’s what this game came down to is those turnovers because all of those gave them the ball deep in our territory, and you can’t do that with (Tampa Bay’s) offense. They’re too good and they’re going to capitalize on that, which they did.”
Brady finished 18 of 33 for 199 yards in what often resembled more of a defensive struggle. Unlike his previous two meetings with the Saints — both losses — he was not intercepted and largely avoided pressure, taking only one sack.
“Really just locking in and playing a lot better than we did the first two times we played them,” he said. “We had a bunch of turnovers last time. This time they turned it over and that’s usually the story of football games.”
After Brees’ third interception on a tipped pass late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs were able to close out the game with Brady, in his first season with Tampa Bay (13-5) after 20 with New England, taking a knee.
“Obviously they beat us twice in the regular season,” Bucs left tackle Donovan Smith said. “We came around in Round 3 with the knockout.
“We’ve been building. You got to get hot at the right time.”
The Saints led 6-3 when Brees, while trying to flee pressure, underthrew Michael Thomas and was intercepted by Sean Murphy-Bunting, who raced 36 yards along the sideline to the Saints 3. Brady hit Evans one play later to put the Buccaneers up 10-6.
Brees’ 16-yard pass to Tre-Quan Smith put the Saints ahead 20-13, and New Orleans appeared primed to build on that lead when Brees found Jared Cook across the 50. But Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. stripped Cook from behind and White snagged the loose ball, returning it 18 yards to the New Orleans 40.
“It wasn’t nothing Brees did. It was everything our defense did,” White said. “Our mindset the whole week was they won the first two rounds, we had to win round three.”
Five plays later, Brady hit Fournette over the middle for a 6-yard score.
Ryan Succop’s 36-yard field goal made it 23-20 before White’s interception of a pass intended for Alvin Kamara gave the Buccaneers the ball at the New Orleans 20, setting up Tampa Bay’s final TD.
Jameis Winston, forced out of Tampa Bay when Brady became available, threw a 56-yard touchdown pass against his old team on a trick play.
Kamara took a direct snap and gave the ball to receiver Emmanuel Sanders on a reverse before Sanders lateraled back to Winston. The reserve QB launched an accurate pass down the middle to an open Smith.
Fournette finished with 107 yards from scrimmage, 63 on the ground. He had 40 yards in one drive that set up a field goal that tied it at 13 as time expired in the first half.
Kamara had 105 yards from scrimmage, with 85 on the ground. Thomas was held without a catch in his final game of an injury-plagued season.
Buccaneers: Linebacker Jack Cichy went out with an elbow injury in the first quarter.
Saints: Deonte Harris, who returned the first Tampa Bay punt 54 yards to set up a field goal, left with a neck injury in the first half.
The Bucs will try to advance to the second Super Bowl in franchise history with Brady, no stranger to high-stakes games in cold weather after his two decades in New England.
New Orleans might have to ponder life without Brees.