LANDOVER, Md. — It was almost 18 years ago that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise enjoyed their crowning achievement, one that now serves as a reminder of how much the Bucs’ standing has fallen since that glorious championship Sunday in San Diego. On Saturday night, a California kid — err, old pro — with more championship rings than any player in league history has moved the Bucs one step closer to the mountaintop that he is all to familiar with.
In his first postseason game not wearing a New England Patriots uniform, Brady threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns as Tampa Bay defeated the Washington Football Team 31-23 in the Wild Card weekend at FedExField. Another new acquisition, running back Leonard Fournette, ran for 93 yards and a score as the Buccaneers withstood a late Washington rally led by Taylor Heinicke, making his second career NFL start under center.
“Certainly a lot to improve win, but great to get a win,” said Brady, who extended his own NFL record with his 31st postseason victory. “If you could win 100-0, it’s going to be the same result in the end. You’d love to play great every game. I think it’s good to win and advance.”
The gulf-sized differences between the opposing quarterbacks — 16 years in age, 334 games in NFL experience, and so on and so on — was supposed to epitomize the difference between the win-now Buccaneers and a Washington team that made the postseason despite a losing record, thanks to being a member of the woebegone NFC East. And after the game’s first 10 minutes, it played out true to form, with two of the Buccaneers’ first three drives covering at least 55 yards. Ryan Succop kicked a 29-yard field goal to the game’s opening drive, and after an interception of Heinicke by safety Sean Murphy-Bunting on Washington’s second possession, the Buccaneers took advantage when Brady found Antonio Brown down the right sideline for a 36-yard touchdown and a 9-0 lead late in the first.
As much as the interception was costly, it also turned out to become one of the many instances when Heinicke showed his resilience as he filled in for an injured Alex Smith. Coming into the game with just two more passing attempts in his NFL career (77) than Brady had postseason touchdown passes (75), Heinicke proceed to lead Washington 75 yards on 11 plays after his interception, including a 24-yard pass to tight end Logan Thomas, and 18-yarder to Terry McLaurin on the next play and, two plays later, running for 10 yards. J.D. McKissic plunged into the end zone from two yards out to cut Washington’s deficit to 9-7 early in the second.
Just two months ago, Heinicke was taking online classic to finish up work toward his degree in mathematics at Old Dominion University before signing with Washington, and the numbers did not look good after Tampa added a score on a 27-yard pass from Brady to Chris Godwin and another field goal from Succop right before the half to open up an 18-7 lead.
But Heinicke, looking to make like Brady 19 years ago when he made an improbable run as a young quarterback on his way to leading the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXVI over the heavily-favored St. Louis Rams, engineered two scoring drives to open the third quarter to bring Washington on the verge of level pegging. Heinicke mixed sharp passes over the middle with beautiful touch down the sidelines, including on a 29-yard gain to Logan Thomas that set up a Dustin Hopkins 36-yard field goal to end the first drive of the second half.
Washington’s defense, second in the league in yards allowed and fourth in points allowed, came up with a much-needed defensive play to end a promising Bucs drive, with Daron Payne punching the ball out of running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s hands inside of Washington’s 40-yard line and linebacker Jon Bostic recovering the football.
From there, Heinicke led another scoring drive, and had Washington fans and neutrals alike watching at home on their feet as he capped off the drive with a third-down scramble for an 8-yard touchdown, ducking his way around the pass rush before bailing out of the pocket and, before reaching the end zone, diving from the four and sailing in the air as he touched the nose of the ball onto the front pylon.
Heinicke’s enthused teammates ran toward the signal-caller after his astonishing play, with presumptive defensive rookie of the year Chase Young pointing at Heinicke’s name plate on his back while facing the camera, telling the whole world to know the name of the quarterback who was leading this improbably charge toward what would be a monumental upset.
The lead was trimmed to 18-16 after a failed two-point conversion attempt to tie the game, and Tampa Bay responded on the next drive with another Succop field goal, from 38-yards, to give the Buccaneers a five-point lead early in the fourth.
The touchdown scored by Heinicke on the ground proved to be a Pyrrhic victory, as he separated his shoulder on that dive and was noticeably grimacing after being knocked to the ground twice on Washington’s subsequent drive. As Heinicke went into the locker room to get his shoulder checked, Tampa Bay proceeded to go on its game-winning drive, with Fournette’s three-yard run giving Tampa a 12-point lead with 9:11 left.
Somehow, Heinicke did not miss a snap, and though noticeably in pain with almost every throw, he gutted his way to leading Washington to another touchdown, lobbing a beautiful pass to the left sideline for Steven Sims Jr. on a third down for an 11-yard touchdown with just under five minutes remaining in regulation. The Buccaneers added another field goal to open up a 31-23 lead, but that gave Heinicke one last chance to etch his name in NFL lore on the last drive.
With just under three minutes left, Heinicke started Washington’s last drive with a 16-yard pass to McLaurin and a 10-yard pass to Cam Sims to get Washington into Buccaneer territory. After two incompletions and a sack by Lavonte David, Heinicke’s fourth-down heave to Logan Thomas fell incomplete right at the two-minute warning, ending Washington’s last-gasp attempt. However, the praise for the former Old Dominion University star was only just beginning.
“When [Heinicke] first got here a month or so ago, I didn’t know too much about him,” said McLaurin, who had 75 yards on six catches. “The first time I even caught a pass from him was last week. But he earned my respect.”
Along with respect, it is certain that he earned the admiration of football fans across the country. More importantly, Heinicke might have earned himself a longterm NFL contract and a shot at being a starter come the beginning of the 2021 season.
“It was gutsy,” said Washington head coach Ron Rivera of Heinicke’s performance, “It’s one of those things that a guy like him that works hard at what he does, he’s created an opportunity for himself and we’ll see what happens.”
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Saturday’s game, with all photos taken by DC-area photographers Yusuf Abdullah and Rodney Pierce. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 33 pictures in total. Along with hoping that you enjoy the pictures, we are encouraging those of you who are serious about educating oneself and making a tangible difference in the fight against social injustice — but struggling to find a starting point — to click this link, an anti-racism resource guide for white people.