Bucs’ incredible journey continues with win

by Gary Shelton on January 25, 2021

in general

Barrett had three sacks for Bucs./Photo By:© Joe Mestas

Monday, 4 a.m.

The incredible journey of the Tampa Bay Bucs will take one final, solid step.

The Bucs, the best team money could buy, are still traveling. They have moved past the questions, beyond the doubts, to the far side of expectations. They overcame their lack of chemistry, their prime-time problems, the whispers of which player didn't like which coach.

They traveled 903 miles to beat the Washington football team, and 658.5 to beat a New Orleans team that had dominated them, and 1,384 miles to beat the top-seeded Green Bay Packers. They overcame a wobbly second half by Tom Brady, and a better performance by Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and the rough moments. They overcame the cold and the history and the opponent.

And now they come home.

The Bucs held off the Green Bay Packers, 31-26, to win their second NFC championship Sunday. Brady's first half and the defense's second half were enough for the victory.

“That’s the scary thing about coming to the Super Bowl at home, we’ve been playing so good on the road and this was fun because we had loud fans and this was football for the first time this year, for me," Bucs' coach Bruce Arians said. "The fans were great here and what an unbelievable atmosphere but to be able to come home and play for the Super Bowl at our place and not have to get on a plane and do all the things that this crazy year has us doing, it will be weird. It won’t even feel like the Super Bowl, we won’t have all of those damn press conferences.

For Brady, it was his 10th conference championship (out of 14 games). The Bucs will attempt to become the seventh wild-card team to win the Super Bowl.

The Bucs jumped to a 28-10 lead early in the third period, taking advantage of two Green Bay turnovers and a Packers' brain cramp.

With the clock down to 13 seconds, the Bucs sent out their punting team. But then they thought about it, and they put Tom Brady back on the field. After picking up the first down, Brady found Scotty Miller, mysteriously in single coverage for a 39-yard touchdown.

“We didn’t come here to not take chances to win the game," Arians said. " With the timeout and then the interception, I wanted to come out of there with points [instead of] punting it. I loved the play we had – got a great matchup and got the touchdown. I thought it was huge.”

"We just got a great match-up. I think they were playing for us trying to get into field goal range and Scotty just ran right by [Kevin] King and when they lined up you could tell that it was going to be a touchdown. We just had to protect and throw the ball.”

Packers coach Matt LaFleur will take some heat about that, but he also had a late-game decision where, on fourth-and-goal from the eight, he chose to kick a field goal with 2:02 to play. The Packers never got the ball back.

After the game, LaFleur defended his decision. Still, his team lost.

Yeah anytime it doesn't work out, you always regret it, right?" LaFleur said in his post-game press conference. "It was just the circumstances of having three shots and coming away with no yards and knowing that you not only need the touchdown but you need the two-point [conversion]. The way I was looking at it was, we essentially had four timeouts with the 2-minute warning.

"We knew we needed to get a stop, and I thought we were going to have a stop there at the end but we got called for [defensive pass interference] and it didn't work out. I think anytime something doesn't work out, do you regret it? Sure, but we're always going to be process-driven here and the way our defense was battling, the way our defense was playing, it felt like it was the right decision to do. It just didn't work out."

For the Packers, it doesn't seem to work out in the NFC Conference title game. This was their second straight season that ended there, and their fourth since 2014.

For all of the players -- including the much argued-about late pass interference call (yes, it was interference) that allowed the Bucs to wrap of the game, this one will be remembered for coaching decisions.

Arians -- for going for points at the end of the first half. LaFleur -- for playing man coverage. Lafleur, for settling for the field goal.

Perhaps none of it mattered. With the Packers getting close in the second half, the Bucs' defense was good. Consider this: In the fourth quarter, the Packers had the ball three times when they were within eight points.

In those three drives, they were three-and-out with minus five yards, three and out with zero yards and were held to a field goal.

For the Bucs, Shaq Barrett had three sacks and Jason Pierre-Paul two. Devin White had 15 tackles and a fumble recovery, and Jordan Whitehead forced two fumbles.

Despite his 346 yards passing, Rodgers could never catch up.

"We knew there is no better time to be great," Barrett said. "There is no better time to be the defense that we want to be than right now, so we just took the challenge. We knew our offense was going to do what they needed to do. When we need help, they bail us out. When they need help, we bail them out. That’s why we’re playing so [well] right now. We’re just working [well] together and we’re in sync for the most part.”

The Bucs were sloppy on offense in the second half between Brady's interceptions and dropped passes.

“Chris [Godwin] drops one and then makes an unbelievable catch on a ball way down the field," Arians said. "Mike [Evans] never drops a ball and then one bounces off his hands. But the resiliency of the crew, the defense gritted their teeth, went out and got it back for us and then we made some big, big plays. Chris made the big play at the end and a couple other plays on first down plays and it’s just water off of his back. It’s just, let’s go get it and nothing phases him.”

Now comes a rematch against the Chiefs in two weeks at Raymond James Stadium.

“It’s been a great journey thus far," Brady said. "We put the work in and a lot of guys just embraced everything that [happened] when B.A. (Bruce Arians) got here last year. There were a lot of great things that were happening and a lot of great, young players. I just made the decision [to come to Tampa Bay]. I love coming to work every day with this group of guys and worked really hard to get to this point. It’s a tough game – we’ve had a few tough games in a row and the next game will be really tough, too. We know what we’re playing for and we’ve got two weeks to prepare. It’s going to be a great opponent. It will be a really exciting couple of weeks for us.”

So when did you really start to believe?

For Arians, it came late.

“I guess when I was holding the Halas Trophy (when it started to sink in)," Arians ssid. "It was like oh my gosh, we’re actually going to do it and we can dream about looking across the street for two weeks.”

Over the next two weeks, you'll hear a lot about the old man (Brady) and kid (Patrick Mahomes), about the way Tyreek Hill worked over Carlton Davis in the last meeting of the teams, about what might happen if the Bucs get off to a decent start.

It will be fun, after all these years, for the Bucs to play a role. They matter. Tampa Bay matters.

And the grand investment of the Bucs? It's a bargain.

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