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Defense, run game lifts Bucs to NFC Championship

The Bucs won their 13th game of 2020, their 22nd ever over the Saints, and their 120th since they held up the Lombardi Trophy 18 years ago, but none of those wins tastes anywhere as sweet as the one on Sunday.

It was a monkey off their back. A storm cloud that finally passed over. A thorn taken out of their side. Choose whichever cliche you want to, but the Bucs finally…FINALLY…found a way to conquer the Saints.

Tom Brady called the Saints their toughest opponent of the season and biggest obstacle for good reason. Every strength that the Saints possessed seemed to combat the Bucs strength. It’s as if the Saints always had the kryptonite for beating not just Brady, but Bucs teams of the past. Even in 2002, the Bucs Super Bowl season, the Bucs lost only four games…two of those were to a New Orleans team that didn’t even make the playoffs.

The even more satisfying part was the Bucs were able to win without their strong passing game. The Bucs defense stepped up, forcing four turnovers which led to 21 of the Bucs’ 30 points, and the run game led by Lenoard Fournette and Ronald Jones found holes in the Saints defensive line which had given the Bucs headaches in the first two games this season.

Perhaps the biggest turnover of the four for Tampa occurred midway through the third quarter. Trailing 20-13, the Bucs season was beginning to get away from them as the Saints began marching down the field again, crossing the Bucs 50, and looking to step on the team’s throat. But Antoine Winfield, Jr. knocked the ball out of Jared Cook’s arms and Devin White, who was the superstar of the game on Sunday, scooped up the loose ball and took it into Saints territory. A few plays later, Tom Brady hit Leonard Fournette for a touchdown to tie the game up.

From there, the Bucs defense took over, forcing two more turnovers, another one by White, and dominated Drew Brees. The 30-20 win lifted the Bucs to the NFC Championship Game where they will travel north to take on the Green Bay Packers.

For the Saints, it’s likely the end of an era. Drew Brees is reportedly hanging it up and it’s unclear whether if Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston will be the starting quarterback next year. They also have a slew of free agents they need to make a decision on whether to re-sign.

For the Bucs, the attention turns to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay weather, which is expected to be Green Bay-like next week with temperatures in the 20s and three inches of snow forecast. The Bucs did beat the Packers 38-10 back in Tampa earlier this season, but these are two totally different teams now. The Bucs offensive line has improved, their running game has gotten better, Brady has built better chemistry with his receivers, and there’s more confidence as a team.

For the Packers, they’re just better overall. Rodgers has only taken his game up a few levels since October, their defense has improved dramatically, and their running game has become more of a weapon with A.J. Dillon, Jamaal Williams, and Aaron Jones carrying the load.

How the Bucs prepare for the Packers will be explored as the week goes on. But for now, just beating the Saints feels oh so good for the team and their fans.

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