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New uniform, same Tom Brady.
And now maybe no uniform for Drew Brees.
Brady threw for two touchdowns and ran for another and the Buccaneers scored 17 points off four takeaways to avenge two regular-season losses to the Saints with a 30-20 win at the Superdome in the NFC playoffs.
The Saints had been eliminated on the final snap of a playoff game in each of the past three seasons — on the Minneapolis Miracle and two overtime scores, including the heartbreak of a missed pass interference call that sent the Rams to Super Bowl LIII.
In his first season since breaking up with the Patriots, the 43-year-old Brady is headed to his NFL-record 14th conference championship game as the pursuit of his seventh Super Bowl ring continues next weekend. The Buccaneers will visit the Packers and 37-year-old quarterback Aaron Rodgers next Sunday in the NFC Championship game.
The score was tied at 20-20 when the fourth quarter opened, but the Buccaneers kicked the go-ahead field goal and Brady finished off the win on a 1-yard touchdown sneak with 5:01 to go.
Brees threw two fourth-quarter interceptions and finished with three in a game for the first time since 2016. It is expected that the 42-year-old Brees — who ranks second to Brady in NFL history in passing yards and passing touchdowns but only has one Super Bowl ring — soon will retire to join NBC broadcasts.
The Saints swept the two regular-season meetings, including a 38-3 rout on Nov. 8. Twelve of the 17 teams who were in the Saints’ position — hosting a playoff game against an opponent it beat twice — pulled off the trifecta.
It looked for a while like the trend would continue.
Tre’Quan Smith, who missed the last three games on injured reserve after ankle surgery, returned with two touchdown catches. Brees’ best throw — not many to choose from as he finished 19 of 34 for 134 yards — was a go-ahead 16-yard scoring strike to the front pylon after the opening kickoff of the second half.
The Saints led 20-13 midway through the third quarter, when Antoine Winfield stripped Jared Cook and Devin Smith recovered the fumble. Brady capitalized by throwing a 6-yard touchdown pass. Leonard Fournette juggled the catch as he fell to the turf but it was not reviewed.
But the short fields set up by turnovers were too much to overcome. All three of the Buccaneers’ touchdown drives began in Saints’ territory. Linebacker Devin White was a particularly large thorn in Brees’ side as he had 11 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery.
Both quarterbacks started slowly, combining to complete 6 of 16 passes for 39 yards in the first quarter and had help getting it to a 13-13 halftime tie. The Saints had a punt return touchdown taken off the scoreboard via penalty.
For the Buccaneers, Sean Murphy-Bunting’s interception and 36-yard return put the ball at the 3. On the next play, Mike Evans got inside position and boxed out Marshon Lattimore to catch a jump-ball touchdown.
The Saints used trickery when Alvin Kamara took a direct snap and handed off to motioning Emmauel Sanders, who pitched a lateral to third-string quarterback Jameis Winston. Lined up as a receiver at the snap, Winston faced no pass rush and stepped into an easy 56-yard touchdown pass to Smith, who was alone in his zip code.
Credit coach Sean Payton’s sense of irony for setting up Winston’s first touchdown with the Saints against his former team. Winston, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, bumped up the depth chart with Taysom Hill sidelined.
Without the ability to employ Hill as a short-yardage runner who keeps defenses honest with his arm, the Saints offense fell flat. It seems the Buccaneers offense is heating up at just the right time.
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