In the span of one postseason, Sean Murphy-Bunting has evolved from erratic to historic.
The second-year cornerback’s second-quarter interception of the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers — setting up Tom Brady’s soon-to-be-mythologized scoring pass to Scotty Miller — was his third in as many playoff games, tying a franchise postseason record shared with Donnie Abraham, Dexter Jackson and Dwight Smith.
“Sean played that thing perfectly,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “I thought he was going to get another one later when they hit that same ball on him.”
Only a month ago, Murphy-Bunting seemed mired in the classic sophomore slump, managing only one regular-season interception. Appearing tentative and a step slow, he was exposed by Falcons receivers Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage in an unsightly first half at Atlanta.
Now, the 23-year-old second-round pick out of Central Michigan has picked off Drew Brees and Rodgers in consecutive weekends.
“Sean has been playing outstanding,” Arians said. “He’s got all his confidence back. The whole secondary does, and should, because they’re playing really, really well.”
Bull burns Bucs
In a development that assuredly left some Tampa sports fans torn, former USF wideout Marquez Valdes-Scantling emerged as arguably the most sparkling cog in the Packers offense.
The former Lakewood High standout and 2018 fifth-round draft pick, who totaled 75 catches in two seasons (2015-16) with the Bulls, finished with four catches for a game-high 115 yards. His 50-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, in which he beat cornerback Carlton Davis in single coverage, was his fifth scoring reception of at least 45 yards this season.
Valdez-Scantling’s 20.9 yards per reception (on 33 catches) led the league in the regular season. He averaged 18.9 yards on 22 catches with USF in 2015, and 16.6 the following season, when he caught 53 passes for 879 yards and six touchdowns.
Safety Jordan Whitehead, who injured his shoulder on a jarring hit of running back Aaron Jones that resulted in a third-quarter fumble (and ensuing Bucs touchdown), said he doesn’t know the extent of his injury but insisted he will be ready for the Super Bowl in two weeks.
“Most definitely,” he said. “The Super Bowl is once in a lifetime. Whatever it takes to be back.”
Whitehead’s exit left the team with backup safeties down the stretch. Rookie free safety Antoine Winfield, listed as questionable before the game with an ankle injury, didn’t play after trying it out on the Lambeau Field turf before the game.
In their absence, second-year safety Mike Edwards and veteran Andrew Adams combined for eight tackles and a pass deflection. Edwards started in Winfield’s place.
“Mike Edwards coming into the game, he’s a splash player, so we weren’t really too concerned with that; we know Mike’s going to make plays,” Whitehead said.
“And then Andrew Adams, the veteran in the room, he’s on everything, he’s up to speed, the playbook, mental notes every week. He doesn’t get a lot of reps, but he’s ready to be thrown in any time.”
Big bonus for Brady
Quarterback Tom Brady padded his $25 million annual salary with a $500,000 performance bonus Sunday and can add another half-million if he leads the Bucs to a Super Bowl title, ESPN reported.
Brady, making his 14th appearance in a conference title game, earned a $500,000 contract incentive with the 31-26 victory against the Packers. He makes the same bonus if the Bucs win Super Bowl 55 at Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 7.
Brady, 43, already had collected $1.25 million in incentives, ESPN reported, during the team’s postseason run prior to Sunday: $500,000 for making it to the playoffs, $250,000 for the wild-card win at Washington, and $500,000 for the division-round win against the Saints.
Odds and ends
The Bucs are the first No. 5 seed to defeat a top seed in a conference title game. ... In these playoffs alone, the Bucs have produced the Nos. 1 and 2 single-game receiving performances in franchise history. Chris Godwin’s effort Sunday (110 yards on five receptions) was nine shy of Mike Evans’ total two weekends ago against Washington. ... Leonard Fournette has 313 yards from scrimmage in three playoff games, most in a single postseason in franchise history. ... Shaquil Barrett and Warren Sapp are the only Bucs with three or more sacks in a playoff game.