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The Buccaneers Defense Bailed Out Tom Brady Just in Time

Brady was electric in the first half, but unable to do anything as the NFC championship game against the Packers wound toward its conclusion. Luckily for Tampa Bay, that’s right when the defense heated up.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. And if you’re Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it’s even better to be a little bit of both. The Bucs went into Lambeau Field on Sunday and beat the top-seeded Green Bay Packers 31-26 in the NFC championship game. Tampa Bay’s Jekyll-and-Hyde tendencies were on full display throughout the game, but ultimately their defensive effort was enough to see the Bucs through to their first Super Bowl appearance since 2003—and somehow further cement Brady’s legacy as the greatest player in NFL history.

The Bucs established an early lead on Sunday, though they weren’t exceptionally sharp. Brady needed to convert three consecutive third-down chances—including a 15-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans—on Tampa Bay’s opening drive to give the team a 7-0 lead. In the early second quarter, Brady found receiver Chris Godwin on a 52-yard pass, which set up Leonard Fournette’s 20-yard touchdown run on the next play. And as time expired in the half, Brady found speedster Scotty Miller down the sideline for a 39-yard score to give Tampa Bay a 21-10 lead going into halftime.

The Bucs’ first-half sprint was keyed by their aggressive offensive approach and their stout defense, which found success pressuring Rodgers throughout the game. Tampa Bay registered eight QB hits and five sacks on the day, with Shaq Barrett (three sacks) and Jason Pierre-Paul (two sacks) taking advantage of a Packers offensive line that was missing starting left tackle David Bakhtiari, who suffered a season-ending knee injury prior to the postseason. Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles trusted his young secondary, which was missing starting safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and lost fellow starter Jordan Whitehead to a shoulder injury in the second half on Sunday. According to Next Gen Stats, the Bucs played press coverage against Packers receivers on a season-high 45 percent of routes, and they were effective in doing so. Sean Murphy-Bunting picked off Rodgers late in the first half to set up Tampa Bay’s third score, and Devin White recovered an Aaron Jones fumble early in the third quarter to set up Brady’s 8-yard touchdown pass to Cameron Brate. Tampa Bay jumped out to a 28-10 lead early in the third quarter that felt eerily similar to its Week 6 rout of the Packers earlier this season.

But then the wheels started to fall off, just as they have at times throughout Tampa Bay’s season. The Packers scored to pull within 11, and midway through the third quarter, Brady was picked off by Green Bay safety Adrian Amos. Rodgers guided another touchdown drive, capped with a 2-yard pass to Davante Adams. A missed two-point try left Tampa Bay ahead 28-23 going into the fourth quarter, and on the ensuing possession, Brady flung another wayward pass that was picked off by Jaire Alexander, giving the Packers a chance to take the lead.

The Bucs defense saved the day. Barrett’s third sack of the game forced Green Bay into a three-and-out, and though Brady was picked off for a third time on the next drive, Tampa Bay’s defense forced another three-and-out to maintain its lead. Brady finally snapped his interception streak by leading a field-goal drive to give the Bucs a 31-23 lead with just under five minutes left. And while the Packers went back down the field and nearly answered with a touchdown, they kicked a field goal and allowed Brady to run out the rest of the clock to clinch the win.

“We played sporadically a little bit,” Brady told Fox during a postgame interview. “But the defense came up huge and we’re gonna need it again in a couple weeks.”

Brady finished Sunday 20-of-36 for 280 yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions, and he accounted for just 78 yards—and all three picks—in the second half. That’s a stat line more reminiscent of former Bucs starter Jameis Winston than the man considered to be the greatest quarterback ever; Brady became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to throw three picks on the road in the championship round and win. But sometimes, the results simply speak for themselves. Brady, 43, is onto his 10th career Super Bowl appearance. And he’s heading there largely because of the talent of the team assembled around him. Fox’s Tom Rinaldi asked Arians to describe what it meant to get Brady down to Tampa Bay this past offseason to help the franchise reach the Super Bowl. Arians didn’t mince his words as he clutched the George Halas Trophy.

“The belief he gave everybody in our organization that it could be done—it only took one man,” Arians said.

There’s a belief that the Bucs will be able to accomplish the lofty goal that hovered over them throughout the entire season. They have the one man on the planet who’s rewritten the NFL’s standard for success time and time again, even 21 seasons into his NFL career. Heck, the Bucs will be the first team to play in a Super Bowl hosted in its home stadium. Of course Brady is the first player to accomplish that.

Tampa Bay’s offense was up and down all season, and the defense is young and not always perfect. Yet Brady is on the cusp of winning another title, defying the odds once again. One could attribute it to luck or skill. Or perhaps it’s simply greatness. “Who would’ve ever thought that we’d get a home Super Bowl?” Brady said. “But here we are.”