Tom Brady throws for 381 yards and two touchdowns to help the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to victory over Washington, who were led by outstanding Taylor Heinicke at quarterback in place of the absent Alex Smith; Buccaneers will meet the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round
By Cameron Hogwood
Taylor Heinicke’s heroics went unrewarded as Tom Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 31-23 win over Washington to set up a mouthwatering Divisional Round meeting with the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
Quarterback Heinicke was exceptional in the absence of Alex Smith as he finished with 306 yards passing for one touchdown and an interception along with a team-high 46 yards rushing for a score off six carries having only been picked up by the team in December.
The 27-year-old was signed by the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2015 and spent time on five teams, including the XFL’s St Louis Battlehawks, before landing with Washington. He overcame a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter to make it a five-point game and keep Washington alive with a perfect pass to Steven Sims at the back of the end zone.
It was not to be though, as the Bucs ultimately reaped the benefits of a commanding start, during which Washington uncharacteristically struggled to apply pressure in the pocket, with Brady and running back Leonard Fournette finding joy throughout behind an impressive offensive line.
The Buccaneers got off the mark on their opening drive through a 29-yard field goal from Ryan Succop, before Brady punished a Heinicke interception to Sean Murphy-Bunting by picking out Antonio Brown for a 36-yard touchdown, only for the extra point to be missed.
Heinicke mounted a superb response with a composed drive that saw him find Logan Thomas down the sideline for a gain of 24 followed by an 18-yard link-up with Terry McLaurin and a 10-yard scramble before JD McKissic iced the march with a two-yard rushing touchdown.
Benefiting from unflinching pass protection, Brady issued an immediate reply of his own by connecting with Chris Godwin for a 27-yard touchdown. The Bucs were unsuccessful on the two-point conversion attempt with Fournette amid their efforts to make up for the earlier missed extra point.
Washington came up with a much-needed hold on defense late in the half to limit the Bucs to a 23-yard Succop field goal at the end of a 10-play drive, followed by another when Montez Sweat sacked Brady on third-and-10 just before the break.
The hosts were forced to settle for a 36-yard field goal from Dustin Hopkins to start the second half when Heinicke’s pass was almost intercepted after soaring through the hands of Thomas, after which they produced a timely defensive stop.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn was then punished for a lost fumble as Heinicke remarkably escaped a collapsing pocket on third-and-five before diving to the pylon for an eight-yard touchdown run. Washington elected to go for the two-point conversion in a bid to tie the game, however, came up short on Heinicke’s intended pass to tight end Thomas.
Washington’s front seven were finally able to disrupt Brady as the Bucs’ first points of the second half came in the form of Succop’s 38-yard field goal early in the fourth after their drive had stalled.
The following series ended with Heinicke heading to the locker room for treatment on a shoulder injury. He was eventually cleared to return, but not before the Bucs had extended their cushion thanks to a three-yard rushing touchdown from Fournette.
Upon returning Heinicke orchestrated an 11-play drive ending in an expertly-weighted pass to find Sims on the corner route for an 11-yard touchdown, the receiver dragging both feet to stay in-bounds as Washington moved within 28-23.
A clock-chewing drive for the Bucs kicked off with a 35-yard pickup from Evans and ended in a 37-yard field goal from Succop to give Tampa a 31-23 lead with 2.54 to play, which they kept as they pencilled in a meeting with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.