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Saints drop the ball in divisional round, Bucs advance

Brett Martel 

The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Tom Brady’s best game in three tries against New Orleans kept the Buccaneers moving on in the NFL playoffs, and has Saints quarterback Drew Brees headed home — perhaps for good.

Brady and the Bucs’ offense turned three Saints turnovers, including two interceptions of Brees, into touchdowns, and Tampa Bay beat New Orleans 30-20 in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs Sunday night.

Two of those touchdowns came on short passes to Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette. And after Brees was intercepted by linebacker Devin White in the middle of the fourth quarter, Brady drove the Bucs to the 1, from where he scored himself to all but ensure his 14th trip to a conference championship game — his first in the NFC.

That game will take place in Green Bay next week, where the 43-year-old Brady will try to advance to his 10th Super Bowl in a showdown with Packers All-Pro QB Aaron Rodgers.

“We worked hard to get to this point. Two road playoff wins is pretty sweet,” Brady said. “We’ve got to go beat a great football team we know pretty well. Aaron’s playing incredible.”

Meanwhile, the Brees era in New Orleans could be over after 15 seasons.

The game may have been the last in the Superdome for the 42-year-old Brees, who is under contract for one more year but has not discussed any plans to play beyond this season, and has sometimes hinted at his impending retirement.

While just 3,750 tickets were distributed in the 73,000-seat Superdome to comply with local COVID-19 restrictions, the fans made themselves heard with an eruption of cheers when Brees took the field for New Orleans’ first offensive series.

If it was his last game, it won’t be one he’ll want to remember. The NFL’s all-time leader in completions and yards passing was 19 of 34 for 134 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.

Brady finished 18 of 33 for 199 yards in what often resembled more of a defensive struggle. Unlike his previous two meetings with the Saints — both losses — he was not intercepted and largely avoided pressure, taking only one sack.

“Really just locking in and playing a lot better than we did the first two times we played them,” he said. “We had a bunch of turnovers last time. This time they turned it over and that’s usually the story of football games.”

After Brees’ third interception on a tipped pass late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs were able to close out the game with Brady, in his first season with Tampa Bay after 20 with New England, taking a knee.

The Saints led 6-3 when Brees, while trying to flee pressure, underthrew Michael Thomas and was intercepted by Sean Murphy-Bunting, who raced 36 yards along the sideline to the Saints 3. Brady hit Evans one play later to put the Buccaneers up 10-6.

The Saints answered, helped by a drive-extending third-down defensive holding call on Murphy-Bunting. New Orleans drove to its 44 before unleashing a trick play.

Kamara took a direct snap and gave the ball to receiver Emmanuel Sanders on a reverse Sanders lateraled back to Jameis Winston. The reserve QB launched an accurate pass down the middle to Tre’Quan Smith for a 56-yard score.

Ryan Succop’s 37-yard field goal capped an up-tempo Bucs drive powered by Fournette’s 40 yards from scrimmage, tying the score at 13 to end the half.

Brees’ 16-yard pass to Smith put the Saints ahead 20-13, and New Orleans appeared primed to build on that lead when Brees completed a third-down pass to Jared Cook across the 50. Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. stripped Cook from behind and White snagged the loose ball as it bounced to him, returning it 18 yards to the New Orleans 40.

Five plays later, Brady hit Fournette over the middle for a 6-yard score.

Succop’s 36-yard field goal made it 23-20 before White’s interception of a pass intended for Kamara gave the Buccaneers the ball at the New Orleans 20.

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