GREEN BAY, Wis. — You may think it was destiny or determination. Fate or fantasy.
It really doesn’t matter, because the belief that Tom Brady instilled in the Bucs was on full display before, during and after Sunday’s 31-26 win over the Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
One play demonstrated what Brady meant to the Bucs this season and how his journey with a team that hadn’t made the playoffs in more than a dozen years would lead it back to Raymond James Stadium as the first in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in its home ballpark.
With 13 seconds left in the first half and Tampa Bay facing fourth and 4 with the ball at the Packers’ 45-yard line, coach Bruce Arians had his punt team on the field.
Then he looked over at Brady and knew the improbable was possible. Arians put his offense back in the game, and Brady threw a 6-yard pass to running back Leonard Fournette to pick up the first down.
Then, Arians dialed up a go route to receiver Scotty Miller. Packers defensive back Kevin King didn’t get much depth, and the second-year pro from Bowling Green ran past him. So here came the ball from Brady that arced just over King’s reach and landed perfectly in Miller’s hands in the end zone to give the Bucs a 21-10 lead.
“We didn’t come here to not take chances to win the game,” Arians said. “With the time out, and then the interception, I wanted to come out of there with points. And said punt it, but then loved the play we had and got a great matchup, got the touchdown and I thought it was huge.”
Can you believe this? The Bucs will play the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55.
After 20 seasons with Patriots, Brady took a huge chance by coming to Tampa Bay and now will return there for his 10th Super Bowl on Feb. 7.
“I think it’s hard to envision,” Brady said. “This is a goal, but at the same time, it’s a week-to-week league. We’re at 7-5 seven games ago not feeling great. We felt like we needed to find our rhythm. Played four great games down the stretch, and then after that it was just all bonus and we just had to go play well. And we played well in Washington, played well all the way around in New Orleans against a great football team and came up here knowing we had to play great. The guys came through.”
The Bucs beat three division champions on the road in the playoffs — Washington, the Saints and Packers. There’s no question that Sunday’s game at Lambeau Field was the toughest.
Even after building a 28-10 lead, the Bucs had to scratch and claw their way to victory over presumptive NFL Most Valuable Player Aaron Rodgers.
Brady passed for 280 yards and three touchdowns. But he threw three interceptions on as many consecutive drives in the second half.
Rodgers threw three touchdown passes, including a 50-yarder to former Lakewood High and USF receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who had four catches for 115 yards.
The game came down to a decision that Packers coach Matt LaFleur will forever want back.
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Needing a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie, Rodgers fired incomplete three times after having first-and-goal at the 8-yard line.
On fourth down, with three timeouts and just over two minutes remaining, LaFleur didn’t have the belief in Rodgers that Arians had in Brady and settled for a 26-yard field goal.
Brady never gave the Packers the ball again, helped by a pass interference penalty when King grabbed Tyler Johnson’s jersey.
“Anytime it doesn’t work you always regret it, right?” LaFleur said of his decision to take the football out of Rodgers’ hands. “But it was just the circumstances of having three shots and coming away with no yards and knowing that you not only need a touchdown, but you need a two-point (conversion).”
It was the ultimate sign of respect for the Bucs’ defense, which sacked Rodgers five times (three by Shaquil Barrett and two by Jason Pierre-Paul). Sean Murphy-Bunting had his third interception in as many playoff games, and Jordan Whitehead forced a fumble before leaving the game with a shoulder injury.
For the 69-year-old Arians, it was vindication from coming out of retirement two years ago to continue chasing his dream of taking a team to the Super Bowl as a head coach.
“There were times when I never thought it would happen,” Arians said. “I never thought I would get a head coaching job. After the cancer scare in Arizona, sitting out that year and coming back, this has been the most rewarding year of coaching in my life.
“I guess when I was holding the Halas Trophy. I said, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re actually going to do it, and we can dream about looking across the street (at the Super Bowl 55 stadium) for two weeks.’”
After the game, Brady looked into a camera and asked, ‘Can I say hi to my son?’ He then went over the railing where his oldest son, Jack, was waiting and gave him a hug. “Love you kiddo,” he said.
What an amazing time to be a Tampa Bay sports fan. In the same 2020 season, the Lightning won the Stanley Cup, the Rays won the American League and pushed the Dodgers to six games in the World Series and now the Bucs are in Super Bowl 55.
“So many teams don’t get a chance because they don’t get a Super Bowl in their stadium,” Arians said. “It was obviously our goal of ours to start the season. But getting to the Super Bowl wasn’t our goal. Our goal was to win it.”
Brady is the biggest reason for all of it. He is the reason the Bucs traded for tight end Rob Gronkowski. Why running backs Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy and wide receiver Antonio Brown signed as free agents.
“Tom’s the GOAT,’' Miller said. “Last year I think ended 7-9 and right now we’re headed to the Super Bowl. We’ve added other stuff. We’ve gotten better. But he’s at the helm. He’s our leader. He’s probably the biggest reason we are where we are.’'
He is about belief, and he is unbelievable. And he could win his seventh Super Bowl ring with a win over the Chiefs.
“I don’t think about what it means for me. I do think about what it means for everyone else,” Brady said. “It’s an amazing achievement. ... Again, just an incredible journey for all of us and I’m just proud to be part of it.”