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Bucs-Saints live updates: Tampa Bay advances to NFC title game

The Bucs turn four Saints turnovers into 21 points in moving to within one win of the Super Bowl.
Rob Gronkowski (center) arrives for Bucs v New Orleans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, January 17, 2021 in New Orleans.
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Rob Gronkowski (center) arrives for Bucs v New Orleans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, January 17, 2021 in New Orleans. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 17
Updated Jan. 18

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The Bucs turned four takeaways into 21 points in beating the Saints 30-20 in an NFC division playoff game Sunday at the Superdome to move to within one win of the Super Bowl.

Tampa Bay advanced to the NFC Championship Game for the fourth time in franchise history (it is 1-2 in its previous trips) and first since winning the Super Bowl after the 2002 season.

Inside linebacker Devin White led the way with an interception and recovery of a fumble forced by safety Antoine Winfield Jr. Tampa Bay scored after each, just as it did following cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting’s interception.

Safety Mike Edwards’ late fourth-quarter interception put the game away, allowing the Bucs to run out the clock.

Tampa Bay trailed 20-13 in the third quarter but scored 17 unanswered points to send New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees down to defeat in what is believed to be his final NFL game.

Meanwhile, Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, who won six Super Bowls with the Patriots, remains in contention for a seventh heading into next week’s NFC title game against the Packers in Green Bay.

Brady completed 18 of 33 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns as Tampa Bay beat New Orleans for the first time in three tries this season.

He targeted nine different receivers in the game and connected with eight, including touchdown passes of 3 yards to receiver Mike Evans and 6 yards to running back Leonard Fournette.

Brees, who seemed unable or unwilling to throw deep, finished 19 of 34 for 134 yards and a touchdown with three interceptions.

Former Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Tre’Quan Smith on a trick play out of the wildcat formation. It was the Saints’ longest touchdown pass of the season.

Saints out of chances

Bucs safety Mike Edwards (32) celebrates his fourth-quarter interception.
Bucs safety Mike Edwards (32) celebrates his fourth-quarter interception. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Any chance the Saints might have had left seemingly was lost when Bucs linebacker Lavonte David tipped a Drew Brees pass into the hands of safety Mike Edwards with just over 4 minutes remaining.

The takeaway was Tampa Bay’s fourth of the game. The first three led to three Bucs touchdowns.

Three Saints turnovers lead to 21 Bucs points

The Bucs defense breaks up a pass in the third quarter.
The Bucs defense breaks up a pass in the third quarter. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Bucs’ third takeaway of the game might have been the biggest of all.

With Tampa Bay leading by 3 midway through the fourth quarter, inside linebacker Devin White intercepted a Drew Brees pass intended for Alvin Kamara at the Saints 48 and returned it 28 yards to the 20.

Two plays later, a 14-yard pass from Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski moved the ball to the 4.

After a 3-yard run by Ronald Jones, Brady went 1 yard over left guard for a touchdown and a 30-20 Bucs lead with just under 5 minutes to play.

White recovered a fumble earlier in the game that led to a Bucs touchdown.

The Bucs turned three Saints turnovers in the game into 21 points.

Bucs go ahead in fourth quarter

Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws a touchdown in the third quarter.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws a touchdown in the third quarter. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Bucs lost one big play but came right back with another during an early fourth-quarter drive that resulted in a go-ahead field goal.

Four plays after Ronald Jones’ 44-yard run was nullified by a holding penalty against tackle Tristan Wirfs, Tom Brady connected with Scotty Miller on a 29-yard pass play to the Saints 31.

In between was a spectacular 15-yard catch by rookie Tyler Johnson on third and 11 that gave Tampa Bay a big first down.

The drive ended with Ryan Succop’s 36-yard field goal, which put the Bucs ahead 23-20 with 9:52 to play.

Fumble recovery leads to tying touchdown

Bucs inside linebacker Devin White (45) returns a fumble recovery into Saints territory in the third quarter.
Bucs inside linebacker Devin White (45) returns a fumble recovery into Saints territory in the third quarter. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. got beat on a third-quarter pass but quickly made up for it by stripping the ball from Saints tight end Jared Cook.

Inside linebacker Devin White scooped up the ball and returned it 18 yards to the New Orleans 40, setting up a tying touchdown.

The Bucs quickly took advantage, Tom Brady throwing a 19-yard pass to Cameron Brate, moving the ball to the 21. Runs of 10 and 5 yards by Ronald Jones further advanced it to the 6.

Two plays later, Brady threw over the middle to running back Leonard Fournette, who lunged into the end zone.

Ryan Succop’s extra-point kick tied the game at 20 with 2:22 to play in the third quarter.

The Bucs have scored 14 points off two Saints turnovers.

Saints make most of Davis’ absence

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Tre'Quan Smith (10) scores over Ross Cockrell in the third quarter.
New Orleans Saints wide receiver Tre'Quan Smith (10) scores over Ross Cockrell in the third quarter. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis was injured on the Saints’ opening possession of the second half, and New Orleans immediately took advantage.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees went right after Davis’ replacement, Ross Cockrell, and completed a 16-yard touchdown pass to Tre-Quan Smith on the next play.

The touchdown, which capped a 10-play, 75-yard drive, gave the Saints a 20-13 lead with just under 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter.

Brees was 3 of 4 on the drive for 36 yards. He picked up a first down with a 2-yard run on third and 1.

Alvin Kamara rushed for 35 yards on four carries. He also caught a 7-yard pass.

Halftime: Bucs 13, Saints 13

Bucs kicker Ryan Succop (3) celebrates his tying field goal at the end of the first half.
Bucs kicker Ryan Succop (3) celebrates his tying field goal at the end of the first half. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Ryan Succop’s 37-yard field goal on the final play of the first half tied the NFC division playoff game between the Bucs and Saints at 13.

The field goal, Succop’s second of the game, capped a 13-play, 68-yard drive in the closing minutes of a back-and-forth first half.

Two Will Lutz field goals gave the Saints an early 6-0 lead.

After a 26-yard Succop field goal pulled the Bucs to within 6-3, Tampa Bay cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting returned an interception to the New Orleans 3, setting up a Tom Brady touchdown pass to Mike Evans that gave the Bucs their first lead at 10-6.

The Saints went back ahead 13-10 on a 56-yard touchdown pass from Jameis Winston to Tre-Quan Smith out of the wildcat formation.

Brady finished the first half 10 of 21 for 93 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.

Murphy-Bunting, with five tackles in addition to the interception, and inside linebacker Devin White (six tackles, including one for loss), led the Tampa Bay defense.

Fournette sparks late first-half drive

Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) gets his hands on the ball but doesn't make the reception in the end zone late in the second quarter.
Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) gets his hands on the ball but doesn't make the reception in the end zone late in the second quarter. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

After getting popped by Malcolm Jenkins at the end of a 3-yard run and then dropping a short pass from Tom Brady, Bucs running back Leonard Fournette helped spark a late second-quarter drive.

Fournette took a checkdown pass 8 yards for a first down on third and 7 to get the drive started, then added receptions of 14 and 8 yards, followed by a 7-yard run.

Brady nearly connected with Chris Godwin on a 29-yard touchdown pass, but Godwin — who got both feet down inbounds — was unable to hold on to the ball as he went to the ground.

A 10-yard pass to Cameron Brate to the Saints 19 on third and 15 was short of a first down, and the Bucs sent kicker Ryan Succop on to the field.

Succop’s 37-yard field goal tied the score at 13 as time expired in the first half.

Jameis Winston (!) puts Saints back in front

New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) throws a second-quarter touchdown pass.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) throws a second-quarter touchdown pass. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Jameis Winston’s first touchdown pass with New Orleans couldn’t have come at a better time for the Saints.

With the Saints trailing by four points midway through the second quarter of the NFC division playoff game, Winston took a pitch from Emmanuel Sanders (following a handoff from Alvin Kamara, who received a direct snap from the wildcat formation) and fired deep downfield to a wide-open Tre’Quan Smith for a 56-yard touchdown.

The touchdown pass was the longest of the season for New Orleans and gave the Saints a 13-10 lead.

Interception helps Bucs pull ahead

Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) runs back an interception in the second quarter.
Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) runs back an interception in the second quarter. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Sean Murphy-Bunting gave the Bucs a big lift with an interception deep in Saints territory early in the second quarter.

Murphy-Bunting undercut a pass for Michael Thomas at the New Orleans 38 and returned it 35 yards to the 3.

One play later, Tom Brady found Mike Evans in the end zone for a touchdown and 10-6 Bucs lead with just over 11 minutes to play in the second quarter.

Bucs get on the scoreboard

Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) has a pass broken up by New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) in the first quarter.
Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) has a pass broken up by New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) in the first quarter. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

After failing to pick up a first down on their first two possessions, the Bucs took a chance on their third opportunity with the ball, and it paid off.

Facing fourth and 1 from its 34, Tampa Bay went for the first down. It converted, with Tom Brady gaining 2 yards up the middle.

The Bucs picked up their second first down of the game two plays later, as Leonard Fournette went 8 yards around right end.

Brady just missed connecting with Mike Evans on a deep ball, but Tampa Bay kept the driving going on an 11-yard Chris Godwin reception, giving the Bucs another first down at the Saints 35.

A 16-yard pass from Brady to tight end Cameron Brate moved the ball to the 17.

The drive stalled at the 8, when Brady’s pass over the middle for tight end Rob Gronkowski was broken up by safety Malcolm Jenkins.

The Bucs settled for a 26-yard Ryan Succop field goal and trailed 6-3 just under 2 minutes into the second quarter.

Pierre-Paul makes two big plays

Bucs outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul made two big plays — one legal, one not — that forced the Saints to settle for a field goal on their second possession.

First, Pierre-Paul tripped running back Alvin Kamara as he sprinted for daylight on a run off right guard. Pierre-Paul was penalized 10 yards on top of the 3-yard run, but he might have saved a touchdown.

Seven plays later, Pierre-Paul broke up a Drew Brees pass on third and 9 from the Tampa Bay 24, forcing New Orleans to settle for Will Lutz’s 42-yard field goal and a 6-0 lead with just over 4 minutes remaining in the first quarter.

Saints pass rush gets to Brady

Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) leaves the field after the offense went three-and-out on a first-quarter drive.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) leaves the field after the offense went three-and-out on a first-quarter drive. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Saints’ pass rush got to Tom Brady on the Bucs’ second possession, as linebacker Demario Davis dropped the quarterback for a 10-yard loss on third and 6 from the Tampa Bay 29.

The sack resulted in a second straight three-and-out and forced a Bucs punt.

It also nearly cost Tampa By seven points.

Deonte Harris returned Bradley Pinion’s punt 67 yards for an apparent touchdown, but the score was nullified by an illegal block in the back penalty against Justin Hardee.

Saints take advantage of field position

The New Orleans Saints' Deonte Harris (11) returns a punt during the first half.
The New Orleans Saints' Deonte Harris (11) returns a punt during the first half. [ BRETT DUKE | AP ]

The Saints took advantage of the outstanding field position they got from Deonte Harris’ 54-yard punt return to take a 3-0 lead on Will Lutz’s 23-yard field goal.

Starting at the Bucs’ 21-yard line, New Orleans drove 16 yards to the 5 before Drew Brees’ third-down pass for Michael Thomas was ruled out of bounds.

Three plays earlier, Bucs safety Jordan Whitehead was penalized for lowering the head to initiate contact, turning a 7-yard Emmanuel Sanders reception into a 14-yard gain to the 7.

Bucs go three-and-out on opening possession

Tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) can't reach Tom Brady's third-down pass on the Bucs' opening possession.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) can't reach Tom Brady's third-down pass on the Bucs' opening possession. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Though they nearly pulled off a deep pass downfield, the Bucs went three-and-out on their opening drive.

Leonard Fournette ran off left tackle for 2 yards and Tom Brady threw a 5-yard pass to tight end Cameron Brate, setting up third and 3 from the Tampa Bay 32.

Brady threw deep down the left sideline, but his pass was just out of the reach of tight end Rob Gronkowski, and the Bucs were forced to punt.

Deonte Harris fielded Bradley Pinion’s punt at the Saints 25, bounced off Jaydon Mickens and returned it a season-long 54 yards to the Tampa Bay 21.

How to solve the Saints?

Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) heads off the field after pregame warmups.
Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) heads off the field after pregame warmups. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Are the Saints in the Bucs’ heads?

It would certainly seem that way, as New Orleans has beaten Tampa Bay five straight times — four by double digits — including twice this season.

The Saints defeated the Bucs by a combined score of 72-26 in their two meetings this season, including a 38-3 embarrassment on Sunday Night Football in which the Bucs trailed 31-0.

Tampa Bay seemed unable to handle New Orleans’ pressure, and Tom Brady threw five of his 12 interceptions this season in those two games. It didn’t help, either, that it abandoned the run game early.

So, can the Bucs turn the tide in today’s division playoff game at the Superdome in New Orleans?

There is precedent for it. Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, seven of the more than 20 teams that twice lost to an opponent in the regular season have defeated that team in the playoffs.

The Bucs may have caught a break with reports Sunday that Saints running back/quarterback/receiver hybrid Taysom Hill (knee) and running back Latavius Murray (thigh) may not play today. Both players were listed as questionable on the most recent injury report.

Tampa Bay, meanwhile, should get a boost from the return of inside linebacker Devin White, their leading tackler and emotional leader, from the reserve/COVID-19 list. Defensive lineman Steve McLendon also was reinstated.

Head coach Bruce Arians said that Leonard Fournette will start at running back based on his performance in last Saturday’s wild-card game at Washington. Ronald Jones, who sustained a quad injury before that game, will be a game-time decision, according to Arians.

Two other Bucs who are questionable for today are safeties Jordan Whitehead and his backup, Andrew Adams. Whitehead was added to the injury report on Friday with a knee injury. Adams has a non-injury-related issue.

Follow along, starting at 6:45 p.m., as the Bucs aim to advance to the NFC Championship Game for the fourth time in franchise history and first since winning the Super Bowl following the 2002 season.

Gameday scene

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A little light reading

Here’s some of our content leading up to today’s game:

Rob Gronkowski says he wants to play for Bucs in 2021

Saints’ Taysom Hill and Latavius Murray could be out today

Forget Brady. Forget Gronk. Bucs need the kids to step up

How the Saints rent space in the Bucs’ helmets

Safeties Jordan Whitehead, Andrew Adams on Bucs’ injury report

If this is Drew Brees’ ride into the sunset, Bucs can create an eclipse

Bucs will start Leonard Fournette for ailing Ronald Jones against Saints

The final faceoff? Comparing Drew Brees and Tom Brady by the numbers

Can Bucs guard Aaron Stinnie go from healthy scratch to heady starter?

Drew Brees’ advantage over Tom Brady? Longevity trumps brevity

How Bucs receiver Mike Evans went from game-time decision to game changer

Bucs’ Devin White is ready for his playoff ride

There will be no Tom Brady magic without this one ingredient

Note to Bucs: playoff history proves third time can be a charm