The Buccaneers Are Super Bowl-Bound Behind Tom Brady’s Magic Inevitability

This image is a derivative of Tampa Bay Buccaneers Tom Brady - New Orleans Saints Trey Hendrickson by Jack Kurzenknabe (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Tom Brady has always felt bigger than his teams, but yesterday went to a new level, creeping into farce.

Bill Belichick had a habit of edging into Brady's picture a little, but Tampa Bay presents few distractions.

This is Brady's team - it was overwhelmingly his team before he ever took a snap - and Brady's story. Against the Packers, everything was just Brady. The Tampa Bay pass rush felt like an extension of his will, Leonard Fournette's spin into the end-zone a by-product, somehow, of Brady's grace. When the Tampa defence started to wilt in the third quarter, it felt like Tom Brady might just be too old.

He won, though, because Brady always wins.

The avenue there was exhilarating and ridiculous, and full of an unusual number of dramatic events. This was true Football Theatre. Aaron Rodgers against Tom Brady in the Conference Title Game at Lambeau, in the cold, with enough fans and atmosphere and loudness to make you forget that there's a pandemic going on and the world is burning. The world has a habit of burning less when Tom Brady is throwing dimes down the sideline. 

Like most great games, it went from being incredibly well played to incredibly poorly played. The interplay between displays of genius and baffling errors was perfectly struck. Tampa's flip-flopping between ultra-aggression - the constant diet of deep shots - and ultra-passivity - the constant diet of first down runs straight into the line - was dizzying. So too was Green Bay's clock management, letting time bleed on every possession, always playing as though they were up a score, with it never appearing to register or resonate with them that they were actually losing the game - an unawareness that held through their final decision to kick a field goal down eight.

But there were also countless moments of brilliance - with the Rodgers v Brady spectacle delivering the moments it promised to. Rodgers is the better quarterback now and played like it. Brady feels more inevitable in a metaphysical sense - his presence and history loom larger - but in the more human, you-need-to-get-first-downs sense, Rodgers is the one. He got into a groove early and the Bucs often looked completely helpless.

But Rodgers' dominance lacked the knifing exclamation mark to end the game. Absent their two starting safeties by the end of the game, the Bucs defence always seemed vulnerable, but did enough to give Brady and the offence a margin for error. Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett defined much of the game's path, sacking Rodgers five times between them.  Jordan Whitehead lost his shoulder in the process, but brilliantly - with two pristine, technically wonderful hits - forced two fumbles from Aaron Jones, the second giving Tampa Bay an ultimately decisive lead.

At times it felt like Rodgers was in such a flow that Tampa would need to rely on luck and small miracles to keep Green Bay from totally steamrolling them. In the end, though, that wasn't the case. There were more heralded, giant moments in the game, but few had the impact of Tampa's back-to-back defensive stands to start the fourth quarter, forcing Green Bay into consecutive three-and-outs just when it looked like the tide might be irreparably turning.

Those stands gave the Tampa offence the chance to atone for a bizarre sequence of three possessions in a row ending with interceptions. After a magnificent start - where Brady was untouchable on third down - the Bucs attack started to look sloppy in unlikely places. Mike Evans, Tyler Johnson and Chris Godwin all had awful drops, though Godwin immediately atoned for his with a 52-yard reception on the very next play.

Brady was up and down, but in a constant state of aggression. Last year was a meek, strangled season for Brady, who was stuck with a numbing geometry to work with on the field, with no deep threat in New England and only Julian Edelman as a dynamic playmaker who could get himself open. In trading Philip Dorsett and Mohamed Sanu for Evans and Godwin, Brady has looked like a new player playing on a new field. As a quarterback, he can breathe again, with all sorts of different angles and space available to him on this team that he wasn't allowed last season.

Much of that space led to yesterday's mistakes - the three picks were all thrown deep - but also produced the moments that won Tampa the game. The jump-ball bomb to Godwin and the final second deep touchdown pass to Scotty Miller - the game's most perfect moment alongside Fournette’s improbable touchdown run - were decisive. Brady also had his typical Brady Playoff Moments, where he produces ethereal plays that make him seem completely unkillable. After Evans dropped what could have been a game-winning deep pass in the fourth quarter, the next play on 3rd and eight, Brady ripped a pass down the middle to Tyler Johnson for a first down, throwing it with a force that seemed to speak to the displeasure with how the previous play had gone.

Brady wasn't perfect. In addition to the picks, he sailed some basic passes and missed open receivers. But Brady has never really been a perfect quarterback. His iconic, perfect second-half drives in the Super Bowls against Seattle and Atlanta followed disastrous turnovers in the first halves of those games.

What separates Brady from everyone in history has been his ability to be perfect when he needs to be, when there is no alternative. Against Green Bay, as he so often has been, he was perfect enough. Now, Patrick Mahomes awaits.

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Jay Croucher

Based in Denver, Colorado, Jay splits time between worshiping Nikola Jokic and waking up at 3am to hazily watch AFL games. He has been writing about AFL, NBA and other US sports since 2014, and has suckered himself into thinking Port Adelaide was the real deal each year since.

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