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Two Tom Brady touchdown passes and four Ryan Succop field goals were just enough for the Bucs to escape FedExField with a 31-23 victory over Washington Saturday night in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
Tampa Bay’s first playoff victory since Super Bowl 37 following the 2002 season was harder than it should have been.
Washington, whose 7-9 record entering the game was the worst of the 14 playoff teams, closed to within 18-16 on Taylor Heinicke’s 8-yard scramble for a touchdown late in the third quarter.
The Bucs scored the next 10 points and took a 28-16 lead on Leonard Fournette’s 3-yard run with just over 9 minutes remaining in the game.
But Washington came back again, closing to 28-23 on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Heinicke to Steven Sims Jr. with just under 5 minutes to play.
A 37-yard Succop field goal extended Tampa Bay’s lead to 31-23 in the closing minutes, but Washington still wasn’t done.
It drove to the Tampa Bay 49-yard line on its final possession, but linebacker Lavonte David sacked Heinicke on third down, pushing Washington back to its 40.
The Bucs’ victory wasn’t secured until Heinicke’s desperation pass for tight end Logan Thomas on fourth-and-21 was batted down by cornerback Carlton Davis.
Brady completed 22 of 40 passes for 381 yards, including touchdown passes of 36 yards to Antonio Brown and 27 to Chris Godwin.
With Ronald Jones sidelined by a quad injury sustained during pregame warmups, Leonard Fournette rushed for 93 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.
Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting intercepted a pass that led to a Bucs touchdown, and David and Davis had nine tackles apiece, including eight unassisted.
Heinicke, a late replacement for injured Alex Smith, finished 26-of-44 for 306 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
The Bucs will have to wait until the completion of Sunday’s Bears-Saints game to know their next playoff opponent. If New Orleans wins, the Bucs will play there in the divisional round. If Chicago wins, the Bucs will host the Rams at Raymond James Stadium.
Not going away
Washington isn’t done yet, pulling back to within five points with just under 5 minutes remaining.
After going to the locker room with a shoulder injury, Taylor Heinicke returned to the field and led his team on a 75-yard scoring drive capped by an 11-yard touchdown pass to Steven Sims Jr. in the back left corner of the end zone.
Earlier in the drive, Heinicke had completions of 23 yards to Cam Sims and 16 to Terry McLaurin to keep the chains moving.
No panic in the Bucs
After yielding all nine points scored in the third quarter, the Bucs come right back with 10 of their own at the start of the fourth.
A 20-yard completion from Tom Brady to Mike Evans and 17-yard Leonard Fournette run got the drive started, and a 19-yard pass from Brady to Mike Evans gave Tampa Bay a first down at the Washington 3.
The Bucs appeared to score on a 3-yard pass from Brady to tight end Cameron Brate, but replays showed Brate did not maintain control of the ball to the ground.
No matter. Fournette picked up the 3 yards over left guard on the next play, and Ryan Succop’s extra-point kick extended Tampa Bay’s lead to 28-16 with 9:11 to play.
A bit of breathing room
The Bucs finally get on the board in the second half, but it’s the three-point variety, not the seven they had hoped for.
A Tampa Bay drive that began at its 25-yard line stalled at the Washington 20 following a sack and an incomplete Tom Brady pass intended for Antonio Brown.
Ryan Succop’s 38-yard field goal, his third of the game, gave the Bucs a bit of breathing room, but not much, as they led 21-16 with 13-1/2 minutes to play.
Bucs fumble proves costly
After going three-and-out on their first possession of the second half, the Bucs seemed to be regaining their rhythm as they moved into Washington territory on their next possession.
A 13-yard pass from Tom Brady to Mike Evans moved the ball to the Tampa Bay 36, and a 14-yard completion to Cameron Brate three plays later advanced it to the Washington 44.
But running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn fumbled on the following play, and linebacker Jon Bostic recovered at the Washington 39.
Washington took advantage of the opportunity driving 61 yards in seven plays to close to 18-16 on quarterback Taylor Heinicke’s remarkable 8-yard scramble for a touchdown.
It appeared that the Bucs had Heinicke sacked as the pocket collapsed around him, but the Washington quarterback escaped, eluding a leaping Jason Pierre-Paul, then outracing Ndamukong Sun around left end before diving from the 4-yard line toward the end zone, driving the nose of the football into the front left pylon.
Washington went for two, but tight end Logan Thomas was stopped several yards short of the end zone after a short reception.
Trimming their deficit
Washington got three points back on Dustin Hopkins’ 36-yard field goal on their first drive of the second half, narrowing the Bucs’ lead to 18-10.
Washington drove from its 30-yard line to Tampa Bay’s 18 before Taylor Heinicke threw high over the middle for tight end Logan Thomas on third-and-4.
Bucs safety Jordan Whitehead had the ball in his hands but failed to hold on for the interception.
Heinicke had completions of 29 yards to Thomas and 12 to Terry McLaurin earlier in the drive.
Halftime: Bucs 18, Washington 7
Tom Brady has passed for more than 200 yards and two touchdown passes as the Bucs lead Washington 18-7 at halftime of their NFC wild-card game at FedExField in Landover, Md.
The Tampa Bay quarterback completed 12 of his 23 attempts for 209 yards, including scoring strikes of 36 yards to Antonio Brown and 27 to Chris Godwin.
Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting intercepted a pass that led to a Bucs touchdown. Cornerback Carlton Davis had a team-leading four unassisted tackles.
Kicker Ryan Succop made field goals of 29 and 23 yards but had an extra-point blocked. Tampa Bay also failed to convert a two-point attempt when running back Leonard Fournette was stopped short of the end zone.
Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke, a late replacement for injured Alex Smith, was 10-of-18 for 130 yards with an interception in the half.
Bucs mixing it up on offense
The Bucs used a nice mix of runs, play-action passes, screens and throws to their tight end on a late second-quarter drive that gave them an 11-point lead.
Ryan Succop’s 23-yard field goal put Tampa Bay ahead 18-7 with 1:50 to play in the half.
Tom Brady had completions of 24 and 19 yards to tight end Cameron Brate on the drive, and running back Leonard Fournette took a screen pass 22 yards.
Fournette also ran four times for 16 yards.
Brady hit a leaping Rob Gronkowski in the back of the end zone on third-and-goal from the 6, but Gronkowski came down out of bounds.
The Bucs wasted no time responding to Washington’s touchdown drive, matching it with one of their own less than three minutes later.
After a squib kick gave it possession at its 39, Tampa Bay needed just five plays to drive 61 yards, culminating in Tom Brady’s 27-yard touchdown pass to Chris Godwin.
The Bucs attempted a two-point conversion, but Leonard Fournette was stopped short of the goal line on a run around left end.
Antonio Brown kick-started the drive with a 22-yard run around left end to the Washington 39.
Making a name for himself
Quarterback Taylor Heinicke breathed some life into Washington’s offense between the end of the first quarter and start of the second.
Trailing by nine, Heinicke led Washington on a 10-play, 75-yard drive capped by J.D. McKissic’s 2-yard touchdown run off right tackle.
Heinicke, a late replacement for Alex Smith making only his second career start, was 3-of-4 for 52 yards on the drive, including a clutch 10-yard completion to Steven Sims Jr. on third-and-8 from the Bucs 19.
Heinicke also had completions of 24 yards to Logan Thomas and 18 to Terry McLaurin on the drive.
Brady to Brown nets six for Bucs
The Bucs turned Sean Murphy-Bunting’s interception into points, as Tom Brady connected with Antonio Brown on a 36-yard scoring pass with just under 3 minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Brown found a soft spot in the Washington secondary deep down the right sideline and, after looking off the safety, Brady hit him in stride.
Ryan Succop’s extra-point try was blocked, leaving the score 9-0.
Rookie running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn saw his first action during the drive, carrying twice for seven yards. He also had a pass thrown his way fall incomplete.
Tilting the field
The Bucs’ defense makes the first big play of the game, as cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting intercepts Taylor Heinicke to give Tampa Bay possession at its 42.
Murphy-Bunting made a nice diving catch on the ball after inside linebacker Kevin Minter provided pressure up the middle.
Two plays earlier, Heinicke completed a 36-yard pass to Cam Sims on third-and-6 to move the ball to the Bucs’ 46.
All for naught
The Bucs’ second drive had a promising start, as Tom Brady hit Chris Godwin over the middle for a 12-yard gain and Leonard Fournette ran for 6 yards to the Tampa Bay 47.
But a Fournette run for no gain and false start penalty set up third-and-long, and Brady’s pass for Mike Evans was incomplete, forcing a Bradley Pinion punt.
Washington goes three-and-out on first possession
The Bucs defense limited Washington to one yard on its first offensive possession.
Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh set the tone by dropping Antonio Gibson for a 4-yard loss on first down.
After a deep incompletion, Taylor Heinicke found Terry McLaurin for 5 yards over the middle, but the pass was well short of the first-down marker, and Washington was forced to punt.
Bucs show good balance on opening drive
The Bucs did a nice job of mixing the run and the pass on their opening drive, resulting in a quick 3-0 lead on Ryan Succop’s 29-yard field goal.
Tampa Bay drove from its 19-yard line to the Washington 11 before the drive stalled, Tom Brady throwing a pass away on third-and-3.
The big play was a pass to Mike Evans that resulted in a 30-yard gain to the Bucs 49. The pass to the left side of the field was good for 15 yards, and Tampa Bay picked up another 15 thanks to a facemask penalty against Kendall Fuller.
Brady was 2-of-5 on the drive for 32 yards. In addition to Evans’ catch, Chris Godwin had a 17-yard reception.
Leonard Fournette carried three times for 23 yards.
Alex Smith inactive, Taylor Heinicke to start
Veteran Washington quarterback Alex Smith has been ruled inactive for tonight’s opening-round playoff game against the Bucs, meaning seldom-used backup Taylor Heinicke starts in his place.
A sixth-year journeyman from Old Dominion, Heinicke has only four more career completions (77) than Bucs counterpart Tom Brady has playoff touchdown passes. Steven Montez, a rookie from Colorado, will back up Heinicke.
Your pregame scouting report
No playoff team drew an easier opponent in the wild-card round of the playoffs than the Bucs.
That’s what the records say. And as Hall of Famer and two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Parcells once said, “you are who your record says you are.”
Despite finishing second to New Orleans (12-4) in the NFC South, Tampa Bay (11-5) will open the postseason against 7-9 Washington tonight at FedExField in Landover, Md.
That’s due to a playoff structure that ranks division championships above overall records and the Bucs earning the No. 5 seed in the conference, putting them against the division champ with the worst record.
So, is Washington as bad as its record would suggest?
Times sports columnist John Romano certainly thinks so, writing, “a loss to Washington would instantly qualify as rock-bottom in Tampa Bay’s scrimpy postseason scrapbook.”
Especially given the pregame news that quarterback Alex Smith, who went 5-1 as Washington’s starter this season, will be inactive, putting seldom-used Taylor Heinicke in charge. Bucs starter Tom Brady has almost as many playoff touchdown passes (73) as Heinicke has career attempts (77).
Not even a defense that ranked fourth in the NFL in points allowed this season can make up that much of a talent gap.
Even at full strength, Washington was simply the best a historically bad NFC East had to offer this season.
The division was so bad that both the New York Giants (6-10) and Dallas (6-10) were both in contention until the final week of the season. In fact, had Philadelphia (4-11-1) not played third-string quarterback Nate Sudfeld in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 20-14 loss to Washington, the Bucs might be playing the Giants today at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans, who suffered a hyperextended left knee during Sunday’s victory over Atlanta, returned to practice on Thursday. He and cornerback Carlton Davis (groin) are expected to be game-time decisions.
Yes, anything happen on any given day in the NFL.
Should it? Under the circumstances, absolutely not.
Follow our live updates, starting at 8:15 p.m., as the Bucs attempt to win a playoff game for the first time in 18 seasons.
Outside of a bye, the road to the divisional round couldn’t get any easier.
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A little light reading
Here’s some of our content leading up to today’s game: