NEW ORLEANS — This is how a man of faith walks. Casually and confidently, as if he knew the journey would always pass this way.
All around him, Bucs players were celebrating, Saints players were evacuating, cameramen were running here and there. Meanwhile, Bucs coach Bruce Arians unobtrusively cut across the Superdome field while Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ blasted out of the stadium speakers.
Don’t Stop Believin’?
How do you have faith when you were embarrassed on national television two months ago by your archrival? How do you believe when you lost three of your last four games in November? Where do you find devotion when a season feels like it is slipping from your grasp?
If you are Arians, you know better. You know the team you built with general manager Jason Licht. You know the character of your players. You know that faith is half the battle in a league that chews up and spits out those who are afraid of grand expectations.
And that is how you look so cool walking off a field after beating the Saints 30-20 and punching your ticket to the NFC Championship Game next weekend in Green Bay.
If there was ever a doubt in the Tampa Bay locker room, Arians cleared the air after back-to-back losses to the Rams and Chiefs six weeks ago.
“We had to look at ourselves in the mirror. We just had to challenge ourselves on who we wanted to be,” said linebacker Devin White, who had an interception and a fumble recovery Sunday. “Everybody always asked what was our identity? We didn’t have an answer. Coach B.A. had an answer. He said, ‘We’re some (R-rated word) who are going to find a way to win a game.’ That was the best thing I ever heard.
“I was on (the NFL Network’s) Good Morning Football, and they asked me the same thing, and I didn’t even really know. I said we were going to figure out (our identity). But when (Arians) said that, it kind of clicked. In this league, the only thing that matters is winning. So him saying that did it for everybody.”
Do you want to know how big this is?
This is only the second postseason in 45 years that the Bucs have won back-to-back playoff games. Ruminate on that for a minute. Since America’s bicentennial in 1976, the Bucs have suffered more desolate Januarys than a meteorologist in Fargo.
Yet here they are, a victory away from being the first host team in NFL history to play in the Super Bowl.
“I can’t say enough about our guys,” Arians said. “These guys worked, and they had a great belief in each other.”
They believed even after they lost 34-23 to the Saints in the season opener, with Tom Brady getting sacked three times and throwing two interceptions. They believed after losing again to the Saints 38-3 two months later.
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They believed Sunday when they went three and out on their first two possessions and gave up back-to-back field goals to New Orleans. They believed when Arians brazenly chose to go for it on fourth and 1 from his 34-yard line while trailing 6-0 in the first quarter.
They even believed when fate revealed its wicked sense of humor by having former Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston come off the bench to throw a 56-yard touchdown pass to reclaim the lead for New Orleans in the second quarter.
“It was a different atmosphere, it was a different team, it was a different unit because everybody was together,” said cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who had one of three Bucs interceptions in the game. “Everybody went into this game knowing we could win, not just going in to play. We went in to win.”
And now that we’ve reached this point in the season, it’s fair to say the Bucs were correct to bet on Brady all those months ago. Sunday was not his finest hour as a quarterback, but Brady showed up with the exact performance this team needed against a top NFL defense.
Brady avoided turnovers and capitalized every time the defense put the Bucs in position to score.
So now, Tampa Bay is in the NFC Championship Game for the first time in 18 years and only the fourth time in franchise history. And never before had they pulled off this feat as a wild-card team.
You have to win on the road to pull that off. You have to beat division champions. You have to be tough and disciplined and talented.
Mostly, you have to have faith.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.