By: Michelle Sabin
Sports Talk Florida – Bucs reporter
The Buccaneers survived their first round of playoff football. It wasn’t pretty and there were questionable calls in Washington’s favor, but Tampa Bay heads into the next round after winning 31-23.
On the opening drive, quarterback Tom Brady led the Buccaneers down the field, but was held to just a field goal. Washington went 3 and out on their first drive, and the Bucs failed to score on their next possession.
The momentum shifted when cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting intercepted Washington on a short pass at Tampa Bay’s 42-yard line. The Bucs capitalized on the turnover with Brady’s 36-yard touchdown pass to receiver Antonio Brown. Kicker Ryan Succop’s extra point was blocked by Washington, leaving the score 9-0 at the end of the first quarter.
At the start of the second, Washington scored a touchdown, but the Bucs immediately responded with a 27-yard touchdown pass to receiver Chris Godwin. A postseason first for Brady with two touchdown passes of 20+ yards.
The Bucs gambled on a two-point conversion with running back Leonard Fournette, but the run fell short. Despite that play, Fournette had one of his best performances of the season, as he stepped up for injured back Ronald Jones. Jones was expected to play on Saturday, after recovering from a quad injury, but never made it into the game. Fournette as lead back rushed for 93 yards, and also completed 4 receptions for 39 yards. Head Coach Bruce Arians praised his performance saying, “Leonard played great, probably best he’s played all year.”
Up until game time, it was also unclear whether starting receiver Mike Evans would be able to play after suffering a knee injury last week. Evans was able to return and started in his first career playoff game. He completed 6 receptions for 119 yards, including a 35-yard pass.
Tight end Cameron Brate called Evans “the consummate pro” adding, “I know he’s not feeling 100% and it seemed like every single catch he made today he’d come up a little banged up, but his heart and how much he wants to win was infectious for everyone.”
Brady did have trouble connecting with his receivers on a few misread routes and several dropped passes by Chris Godwin. Fortunately, all year he has had an arsenal of receivers available and the playoffs will be no different. Brady connected with five of them in the wild card round, including Cameron Brate with 4 receptions for 80 yards. Arians said, “Cam came up huge. He has had a hell of a year for us.”
What was outside of their control during the game was the refereeing and how that impacted the outcome. Throughout the game, there were several bad calls by the refs that went in favor of Washington. The worst being a horse collar penalty on Murphy-Bunting in the third quarter.
The key issue on a horse collar is where the hands are located during the tackle. If the hands are in the opening of the shoulder pad or jersey, it’s illegal. However, Murphy-Bunting very clearly reached over the shoulder for the tackle and never made contact with the opening of the jersey. By the book, it was a legal play.
Unfortunately, Washington was awarded halfway to the goal giving them a field position on the 13-yard line. A few plays later, as the pocket was collapsing around Washington’s third-string quarterback Taylor Heinicke, he scrambled away and ran in a 8-yard touchdown. The horse collar was the wrong call by the ref and a costly one for Tampa Bay.
Ultimately, the Bucs managed to maintain the lead and win their first post-season game since January 2003. Brady was not completely satisfied with the win saying, “we had opportunity to pull away and just couldn’t do it . . . certainly a lot to improve on.” And while they had over 500 yards on offense, as Brady said, “at the end of the day it comes down to points.”
Next weekend, the Bucs will face either New Orleans Saints (who they’ve lost to twice this season) or the Los Angeles Rams (who they lost to on Monday Night Football). Arians said, “we are a better football team than the last time we played the Saints,” but admitted their defensive performance against Washington would not be good enough to beat New Orleans.
For now, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can celebrate advancing to the next round of the playoffs. As Brate optimistically said, “we’re just pumped that we got the win, no matter how ugly it was, no matter how many mistakes we made, it doesn’t matter. A win is a win at this point in the year.”
The video used in this story was provided by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Youtube Channel.