The New Orleans Saints embarrassed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the regular season, sweeping Tom Brady and Co. to enter Sunday night's divisional round rematch as obvious favorites at home. The playoffs are not the regular season, however, and that could not have been clearer at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where Drew Brees collapsed in what might be the final game of his NFL career, throwing three interceptions and watching as teammate Jared Cook coughed up a fourth turnover to aid Tampa Bay's path to vengeance. Redemption, of course, isn't all the Buccaneers are getting with their 30-20 upset, as Brady and Bruce Arians are now headed to the NFC Championship Game with a shot at reaching the Super Bowl.
Brady, to be fair, was far from stellar for stretches of Sunday's prime-time affair. But when gifted great field position because of the Saints' turnover spree, he capitalized, throwing for two scores and rushing for another. Tampa Bay's defense, meanwhile, had a field day picking on Brees, whose arm simply didn't appear lively throughout the night.
Here are some instant takeaways from Tampa Bay's big victory to advance to the NFC title game:
Why the Buccaneers won
They were opportunistic. On a night when Tom Brady wasn't exactly lighting up the stat sheet or hitting his wideouts for big plays (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown combined for a measly six catches for 47 yards), the Bucs simply capitalized on all their most precious scoring chances. An early Sean Murphy-Bunting interception set up an easy Brady-to-Evans TD, an Antoine Winfield Jr. forced fumble set up an easy Brady-to-Leonard Fournette TD, and a late Devin White pick set up Brady's QB sneak score. The offense barely had to work! And yet the ground game was an underrated success, too, with Fournette and Ronald Jones combining for 125 yards on 30 carries to ice away the victory.
Why the Saints lost
Sadly for Brees on likely his last night at the Superdome, nothing held the Saints back more than their future Hall of Fame QB. Without a multipurpose Taysom Hill, New Orleans was slow-moving, with guys like Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas (who finished with zero catches) struggling to fully break loose. But Brees ruined any chance they had otherwise, throwing three bad picks on a night littered with inaccuracy and/or poor touch. Other than his TD pass to Tre'Quan Smith, No. 9 was flat-out off-target for most of the evening, with Jameis Winston (!) providing the team its biggest offensive spark on a trick-play bomb for a TD.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Saints trailed by just three points. After a couple of short throws, they approached Tampa Bay territory. And then Brees completely misfired on an intended throw to Kamara, who may or may not have deserved blame for the miscommunication, and Bucs linebacker Devin White retrieved an easy pick and returned it 28 yards to set up the Bucs' next score, giving Tampa a 10-point lead and all but seal the Saints' disappointing defeat.
Play of the game
It didn't save the Saints, but it sure looked cool when it happened. Winston's trick-play TD pass was even sweeter because it came against his old team (and perhaps gave us a peek at the 2021 Saints offense!):
The Saints will enter a critical offseason during which they'll not only have to navigate a precarious cap situation but perhaps identify their QB of the future, with Brees likely to hang up the cleats. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, will travel to Lambeau Field for an NFC Championship showdown with the Packers.