LANDOVER, Md. — Considering the names of the future Hall of Fame quarterbacks headlining the NFL playoffs, Tom Brady vs. Taylor Heinicke looked like a huge mismatch.
A few months ago, the Washington quarterback was finishing some online courses at Old Dominion. But when injured starter Alex Smith was unable to play, the 26-year-old Heinicke — who had only one previous start in his career — looked as if he would be schooled by the six-time Super Bowl champion.
For about a week in 2017, Heinicke met Brady in the quarterbacks room at the Patriots facility as a practice-squad player, and he felt out of place.
That wasn’t the case in Saturday’s NFC wild-card game, as Brady needed to summon all his poise under pressure to beat Washington 31-23.
Brady passed for 381 yards and two touchdowns and got some clutch performances from running back Leonard Fournette and wide receiver Mike Evans.
But it wasn’t until Heinicke was sacked by Lavonte David in the final minutes that the Bucs’ first playoff win since Super Bowl 37 to cap the 2002 season was secure.
“He was very elusive,” coach Bruce Arians said of Heinicke, who passed for 306 yards with a touchdown and was the team’s leading rusher with 46 yards and another score. “We knew he was going to scramble around, and we really were hoping for Alex (Smith) because that part of the game wouldn’t be in there. He made some really good plays and had a lot of poise.”
Coupled with the Rams’ upset of the Seahawks, the Bucs will play either at New Orleans or host Los Angeles in an NFC divisional playoff game next weekend depending on the outcome of the Saints-Bears game on Sunday.
Brady entered the game with nearly as many playoff touchdown passes (73) as Heinicke had career pass attempts (77) and more career touchdown passes (581) than Heinicke had passing yards (467).
Arians’ club will have to compete better than it did Saturday night if it wants to be the first team to play the Super Bowl in its own stadium.
The Bucs had a couple things go against them early. Running back Ronald Jones sustained a quad injury in warmups and could not play. Guard Alex Cappa appeared to fracture his ankle in the first half and is likely lost for the playoffs.
But fortunately, the Bucs had some players like Fournette, Evans and tight end Cameron Brate (four catches, 80 yards) put the offense on their shoulders.
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Fournette rushed for 93 yards and a touchdown while catching four passes for 39 yards. A week ago, Evans left the game with a hyperextended left knee that put his season in doubt. But he gutted it out Saturday and made some huge catches down the stretch, finishing with 119 yards receiving.
Brady was grateful for the help. The Bucs left a lot of points off the board and had to settle for four Ryan Succop field goals.
“They both played great, and we needed them to play great,” Brady said. “They made a bunch of big plays when we needed them to. It was a tough, hard-nosed game. They had a lot of fight. We had opportunities to pull away and just didn’t do it. We didn’t score enough points in the red area. There’s certainly a lot to improve on. We’ll figure out who we’re playing tomorrow and go from there.”
Arians was disappointed in the Bucs’ defense, which was playing without middle linebacker Devin White, who is set to come off the reserve/COVID-19 list Sunday.
The Bucs got an interception by Sean Murphy-Bunting on a tipped pass but only sacked Heinicke twice. The last one, by linebacker Lavonte David with Washington trailing by a score and at midfield, iced the game for the Bucs.
“It was great, because we weren’t tackling him worth a (crap) the whole game,” Arians said. “We finally got him when it mattered. It’s not the best our defense has played in awhile. It was terrible until the last eight minutes.”
Heinicke said he tried not to look over to the Bucs sideline and think about the fact he was going against Brady.
“I didn’t,” he said. “Again, I just wanted to go out there and complete the ball and keep those guys moving.”
Certainly, the Bucs will have to play better against the Saints in New Orleans or the Rams at home if they want to reach the NFC Championship Game.
But considering they hadn’t won a playoff game since that fateful night in San Diego when the Bucs took down the Raiders in the Super Bowl, Saturday’s win was a long time coming and one worth celebrating.
“You can win 100-0 and it’s going to be the same result in the end,” Brady said.
“Glad we won. We’ve got another week of work, and we’re going to go in and try to do a better job this week.”