Saturday, May 21

Tom Brady negotiates the NFC playoffs, gives the Buccaneers the best of his Patriots

Tom Brady got his first NFL playoff victory with the Buccaneers. His performance didn’t look much different from the massive playoff victories he had for the Patriots.

Tampa Bay needed every bit of GOAT quarterback greatness to survive host Washington 31-23 in Saturday night’s NFC wild-card playoff game. In an unlikely pass duel with Taylor Heinicke and facing a tough passing run, Brady had all the answers with every shot type.

A year ago, Brady struggled with a limited Patriots offense in the AFC playoffs, with a late pick-six marking his shaky loss to the Titans. With the Buccaneers, there were no questions about his arm or accuracy on the field.

Brady didn’t seem to be anywhere near 43, as Heinicke, 16 years his junior, kept Washington in the game until the last drive while playing for an injured Alex Smith. Brady was not perfect as he faced a lot of pressure; he took three sacks and completed only 55 percent of his passing attempts. But even without completing a pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was needed to help with pass protection, he made big plays across the field.

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Washington did his best, but couldn’t stop Brady (22 of 40 passes, 381 yards, two touchdowns, 8.9 yards per attempt, 104.3 rating) from regularly dodging the run and carrying the ball downfield to his elite receivers. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown. With Gronkowski playing more in line, Brady simply pivoted to Cameron Brate for big catches from tight end.

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That opened things up for Leonard Fournette to lead a prolific running game. There was a perception at one point Saturday that Washington’s defense was doing a great job. But in the end, the Bucs racked up three touchdowns, four field goals and 507 yards of offense. Brady’s night could have been bigger without the unusual downfalls of Godwin and others.

Brady is playing at a high level, but he’s also getting great support from the Bucs’ offensive line and a wealth of talent at skill positions. After some setbacks during the regular season, he is now fully fused with offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich who remembers his connection to Josh McDaniels in New England.

Heinicke was a playmaker, save for an early interception and a few bad balls. Ahead are the most dangerous quarterbacks who are contemporaries of Brady. If form holds up in the NFC playoffs, then Brady would have another shot at Drew Brees and the Saints, who swept the Bucs in the regular season. If the Bucs advance to the NFC championship game, then they would be in line to face Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, whom the Bucs defeated in the regular season.

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The Bucs defense is talented. He is constantly stopping the run and coordinator Todd Bowles has good pass rushers and solid defensive backups for his blitzing scheme. But watching Heinicke tear down that defense, it was clear there are a lot of gaps in coverage as well. There will be continued pressure, then, on Brady and the offense to win high-scoring games in the playoffs.

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Brady was excited and calm at the same time on Saturday. He was never nervous, and while Washington put up a good fight, there was no reason to believe the Bucs weren’t always in full control of the game. Along the way, he made some of his classic jaw-dropping throws perfectly tailored to his receivers.

The Buccaneers were dressed in their red and pewter uniforms, trying to bring him back to the magic of their Super Bowl 37 championship. But one could easily be fooled that Brady was still sporting the red, white and navy of the Patriots teams that won. Super Bowls 36, 38, 39, 49, 51 and 53.

Brady left the Patriots because they were no longer the right team to bring out the best in him. He chose the Bucs wisely, and while it took a while, they fully became his team just before the playoffs.

Now that the Bucs are in the playoffs, they are getting a very familiar QB, nothing less than a full GOAT.

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