SportsPulse: We are down to the final four in the NFL. Mackenzie reacts to the biggest storylines from Sunday’s divisional round action.
In what is widely expected to be Drew Brees’ career finale, the 13-time Pro Bowl Saints quarterback threw three interceptions.
An opportunistic Tampa Bay defense totaled four takeaways Sunday night as the Buccaneers outlasted New Orleans 30-20 at the Superdome in an NFL divisional playoff game. The turnovers overshadowed what was expected to be a display of passer acumen between future Hall of Famers Brees and Tom Brady.
“All game the turnovers were huge,” said Brady, whose offense didn’t turn the ball over as his defense collected gifts. “Last time we played them we lost the turnover (battle) minus-three. Today was plus-four. You’re not going to lose many games when you’re plus-four.
“The defense was incredible.”
Tampa’s defensive prowess continues the Bucs’ pursuit to become the first team in NFL history to compete in a home-stadium Super Bowl. An NFC championship showdown at Green Bay next Sunday is the lone win that stands in their way.
Brees finished 19-of-34 for 134 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
It wasn’t Brees, but backup Jameis Winston who found the end zone first against Tampa. Credit Saints coach Sean Payton’s latest gadget play for scheming Winston against his former team, Winston entering the game with 8:17 to play in the second quarter as Saints running back Alvin Kamara fielded a direct snap. Kamara then pitched it to a streaking Emmanuel Sanders, who shoveled the ball to Winston.
The Bucs defense swarmed Kamara as Winston sailed a 56-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Tre’Quan Smith to regain the Saints’ lead against Winston’s former team.
Smith, activated from injured reserve with an ankle injury, caught both of the Saints’ touchdowns.
Brees’ game didn’t dupe the Bucs defense nearly as effectively. Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting unleashed the flow when he nabbed a second-quarter Brees pass to Saints receiver Michael Thomas, Murphy-Bunting stiff-arming Thomas and returning the theft 36 yards to the 3. Brady found receiver Mike Evans for a score one snap later.
The Bucs’ second touchdown would also arrive via a turnover-shortened field, Bucs rookie safety Antoine Winfield knocking loose a Jared Cook catch that linebacker Devin White recovered and returned 18 yards. This time, Brady and Co. needed five plays to traverse the remaining 40 yards.
White and safety Mike Edwards each intercepted Brees to seal the win. The Bucs scored 21 points off turnovers.
“It was great just to see Devin make those plays that he’s capable of making,” Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said. “Everyone’s criticizing how he can’t cover anybody. I think he just proved he can.”
Arians praised his defense, which surrendered 34 then 38 points in regular-season losses to the Saints, for disrupting Brees – and his weapons, including receiver Michael Thomas, who caught zero of four targets in the game.
“This is a different football team than it was in that week,” Arians said. “I tell everyone that and no one wants to believe it. Defensively we’ve had some rough spots at times but we’ve had some really, really good times. And this is one of the best times.”
Brady finished 18-of-33 for 199 yards and two touchdowns. His 32nd career postseason win advances him to a conference championship for the 14th time in 20 seasons, though first in Tampa. Brady focused instead on what the win mean to the Bucs, advancing further than the franchise had since the 2002 season.
“We worked hard to get to this point,” Brady said. “Two road playoff wins is pretty sweet.”
But it’s not enough for the Buccaneers, White said.
“At the end of the day, the job’s still not finished yet,” the linebacker with two clutch takeaways said. “It was always about getting to the bigger goal. Tom preached that and Tom’s a winner.
“I’m glad to be playing under his leadership.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein