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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Even with new coaches and heightened expectations, the Tennessee Titans still revolve around quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Maximizing Mariota has been the Titans’ top goal this offseason, and an inability to do so in 2017 played a role in the firing of former head coach Mike Mularkey last month.

“Marcus is a very football-smart player, tough guy, team is very important to him. I think he has a very high ceiling,” Titans general manager Jon Robinson said. “He’s done a lot of good things for us. We can put him in a position to be even better.”

Multiple league sources believe that the Titans’ offensive coaching staff was a bigger issue in Mariota’s Year 3 struggles than the QB himself. Tennessee’s move to dump Mularkey and hire first-time head coach Mike Vrabel would indicate that it feels the same. But a coaching change doesn’t solve all of the problems involving Mariota and the Titans’ offense.

Inside the Titans organization, there isn’t much doubt that Mariota, 24, can still be an elite QB and the right man to lead the Titans to a Super Bowl. But entering Year 4, it’s up to Mariota to prove them right.

‘He’s going to be a beast’

Mariota’s trajectory was headed toward top-10 NFL QB to kick off the 2017 season before the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft hit his biggest wall yet. The Titans achieved their most success as a team since 2003, but Mariota rarely appeared comfortable. He was visibly frustrated toward the end of the season, and he often struggled on the field.

He threw for a career-low 13 touchdowns and a career-high 15 interceptions. Mariota’s 79.3 passer rating was 27th in the NFL, below that of Jacoby Brissett and Blake Bortles.

“Marcus is a really good football player. I think if you just look at the statistics, it doesn’t quite say that,” Robinson said. “I think Marcus made a lot of really good plays for us this year.”

Mariota did make a ton of eye-popping plays, such as the TD throw to himself that launched an 18-point comeback victory in the playoffs against the Chiefs or the stiff-arm delivered to Jaguars safety Barry Church in Week 17 to essentially clinch a playoff berth or the beautiful, 37-yard, drop-in-the-bucket pass to Delanie Walker in Week 12 despite triple coverage from the Indianapolis Colts.

“I don’t give two f—s what people think about Marcus,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “I’ve seen what he can do. I’ve seen how hard he works. I’m with that guy 110 percent.”

Late in the season, the typically understated Mariota began to express more emotion and body language after big plays. It was another example of Mariota’s unspoken leadership that gave his team a jolt.

“When you got a quarterback that got swag like that, it’s everything. He’s going to bounce back and wake up. And when he wakes up, he’s going to be a beast,” Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jurrell Casey said. “Just waiting for him to let that explode constantly.”

Inconsistency was the story of the season, capped off by a comeback road playoff victory over the Chiefs followed by what Mariota called an “embarrassing” loss to the New England Patriots in the divisional round.

It has been well-documented that the previous staff could have done more to cater the scheme to Mariota. Casey said he wants to see Mariota run more of the scheme he ran in college at Oregon. Multiple player sources say the 2017 offense was too predictable and limited Mariota’s playmaking ability.

All of this could be true. But how the Titans address the other issues that held back the offense will determine whether this team continues to ascend. Mularkey and former offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie aren’t around to be anybody’s punching bag anymore.

Receiver routes didn’t help

Walker still gets mesmerized by Mariota’s serene demeanor on and off the field. But it was some of the late-season fire he saw from his QB that took his respect for Mariota to another level.

Walker couldn’t stop smiling when he saw Mariota selflessly make a great lead block for Derrick Henry on a third-and-10 rushing conversion to clinch the Titans’ playoff win over the Chiefs. It was a play that quarterbacks don’t usually make. It was just another example of why Walker and the rest of the Titans are unwavering in their confidence of how good Mariota can be.

Several Titans players have said that passion lifts everyone’s game to another level, and they hope they’ll see more of it to start the 2018 season.

One NFL defensive assistant who is familiar with Mariota said he is still sometimes too nice to mistake-prone players. That source thought it wasn’t natural for Mariota to acknowledge and attempt to correct his teammates’ mistakes.

Multiple sources told ESPN that they felt poor route design, precision and splits made windows far more difficult for Mariota to throw into throughout the season. A lack of overall speed on offense didn’t help either.

Former NFL QB and ESPN NFL analyst Matt Hasselback agreed with the receiver issues, citing multiple instances of poor route running and drops by rookie receivers Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor, along with veteran Rishard Matthews.

“You’re not running those routes for Tom Brady. No way. He’ll get in your face, or he’ll make sure your coach gets in your face,” Hasselback said. “To play QB with the level of anticipation you play with, you need the guys around you to help you out.”

But it’s not all on Mariota’s supporting cast. On film, it’s common to see Mariota become impatient in the pocket even when pressure is not near. His footwork regressed throughout the season, and he often threw primarily with his arm, not bringing his lower body with him.

Mariota has an admitted habit of not pushing off his back foot on some throws. He also has a tendency to be inconsistent with his dropbacks, often drifting left or right of the center without rhyme or reason. He has worked to break it over his three NFL seasons, but there were at least five interceptions this season that could be directly attributed to his falling back into those habits and delivering inaccurate throws.

“He’s going to bounce back and wake up. And when he wakes up, he’s going to be a beast. … Just waiting for him to let that explode constantly.”

Jurrell Casey on Mariota

On a macro level, there might not be five other NFL quarterbacks who can match Mariota’s athleticism and overall talent. He became the fifth quarterback in NFL history with at least 9,000 passing yards (9,476) and 900 rushing yards (913) in his first three seasons.

There is optimism within the Titans organization that Mariota’s throwing and pocket-feel issues are fixable.

New Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur and quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara are expected to spend significant time with Mariota this offseason, reworking some of his throwing mechanics and instilling the consistent discipline that can elevate his game as a passer.

“We’re going to be extremely detailed with his fundamentals and his footwork because that leads to more consistent quarterback play,” LaFleur said. “There are going to be some different techniques that we are going to implement with him.”

Balance between unleashing, keeping him healthy

This will be Mariota’s third NFL head coach as he enters his all-important fourth season. Robinson said he has no concerns about the instability. A procedural move to exercise Mariota’s fifth-year option is coming this spring, but the more important decision on a long-term contract might take more time to figure out.

The Titans haven’t had a QB as good as Mariota since Steve McNair, so it’s unlikely they’ll let him leave. But how Mariota performs in 2018, under the highly touted LaFleur, will give the Titans a grasp on whether he’ll ever reach his tantalizing potential.

One key question remains, even with a new coaching staff: How do you balance unleashing Mariota with keeping him healthy?

One coach who was on the Titans’ 2017 staff told ESPN that there was an edict to dial back some of Mariota’s running last season in order to protect him from himself. That coach also felt that Mariota’s running restrictions, particularly in the first three months of the season, significantly limited the offense.

Mariota missed just one game in 2017, but he battled an assortment of hamstring, shoulder, knee and ankle injuries that limited him for much of the season. There were several games last season in which the coaching staff didn’t know until Friday if he’d be able to play. He also suffered multiple MCL sprains and a fractured fibula in his first two NFL seasons.

“The first thing we’re going to be is very concise [with] how we can protect the QB. That is the foundation,” LaFleur said. “He’s such a competitor. You can see it on the tape where he’s fighting for extra yards, where I’d rather him preserve himself and get down.”

Most of Mariota’s major injuries occurred while he was in the pocket, but his 2017 injuries typically happened while he was attempting to run. It’s also noteworthy that this was the first NFL season Mariota has finished, and he’ll have an entire offseason to focus on improving his game rather than rehabbing.

“It’s hard for guys that are good runners. If you want to be consistent over the long haul, it’s easier to win from the pocket. He has shown the ability to be a difference-maker,” said Hasselback, who noted that he could tell Mariota was hurting late last season. “I would say what is the defensive coordinator on the other team afraid of? He’s afraid of you throwing on time and getting the ball out quickly.

“But then, when they have that perfect coverage, I don’t want my defender in space with Mariota. And this is sort of a [Brett] Favre thing, but I don’t want you to inspire the entire sideline and stadium by your body language. Mariota’s teammates love him. That’s more than half the battle.”

LaFleur’s plan is to tailor his scheme around Mariota and what makes the young quarterback comfortable. Mariota has succeeded when throwing off play-action, running an up-tempo offense and having run-pass option plays. Mariota is a better passer than many realize, but consistency is the key.

It’s likely not a coincidence that those were some of the areas in which LaFleur and the Los Angeles Rams excelled during the 2017 season. Vrabel said there will be more spread scheme, easy throws and pocket movement in the Titans’ offense next season. They want to make it more about the team, rather than put it all on Mariota.

“If there’s something we stumble upon from a college system drawing back on Marcus’ background and some of these other guys’ background, then we’ll implement that stuff,” said LaFleur, who has gotten the most out of Jared Goff and Matt Ryan.

“If you can develop some confidence with these guys, the sky is the limit.”



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Los Angeles Chargers’ new coach Brandon Staley is the latest coaching wunderkind

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Editors’s note: A version of this story originally ran on Jan. 7, 2021. On Jan. 17, 2021, the Los Angeles Chargers hired Brandon Staley to be their head coach.

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — A black Range Rover pulled into the Four Seasons at 4:58 in the morning, and Brandon Staley climbed in.

The driver was Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, and he was there to pick up the rather anonymous Denver Broncos outside linebackers coach to interview to be his defensive coordinator, replacing the legendary Wade Phillips.

The interview began immediately along the 10-mile drive to the Rams’ practice facility, where Staley — who came highly recommended from McVay’s inner circle — really dove in.

“When you talk football — I’d like to think that I love football as much as anybody — you’re sitting there and you’re thinking, ‘This guy might be sicker than I am,'” McVay said about Staley.

Staley, who turned 38 last month, loves two things most: his family and football. He and his father are cancer survivors, but he watched the disease take his mother’s life after nine years. He has taken a somewhat unconventional path to the NFL, but every stop — from playing quarterback at Dayton and Mercyhurst, to coaching at Hutchinson Community College and serving as an NFL position coach for three seasons — served a purpose in shaping him and the NFL’s best defense.

Since McVay’s arrival in L.A. four years ago, the Rams’ identity has been tied to his high-scoring offense. But this season is different. And that difference began during a 12-hour marathon interview McVay and Staley admit flew by and could have lasted longer.

Staley pored over his plans for the Rams’ defense, utilizing the blueprint he created at John Carroll University, a Division III school in Ohio where he served as defensive coordinator for the Blue Streaks four seasons earlier and developed a top-ranked unit.

Staley brought up Frank Pines, an undersized lineman for the Blue Streaks who he called a force of nature who could play anywhere along the defensive front.

Pines’ role would be filled by Aaron Donald, the Rams’ two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Then there was Jovon Dawson, an athletic defensive back who could play safety, corner and nickel, a skill set so grand an entire defense could be built around him.

Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey would be Dawson’s All-Pro equivalent.

“They’re not household names to the NFL,” Staley says, “but they’re household names to me.”

Staley knows it sounds like a stretch, walking into his only formal interview for an NFL coordinator position and bringing up D-III players — guys who paid to play in college, that no one ever heard of.

Even his former players got a good laugh when they found out their names were mentioned.

“I couldn’t hold Jalen Ramsey’s jockstrap!” said Dawson, who is 25 and works for a family business.

“That’s just crazy that he said that,” said Pines, 27, now a territory manager for US Foods. “It’s kind of weird to be compared to the best defensive player in the NFL.”

But to Staley, the analogy played perfect.

“The biggest point was that we were going to take advantage of our personnel,” he said. “I was able to articulate that clear vision because I had done it before.”

Now Staley, whose defense can stifle any quarterback, create turnovers and consistently score, is heading across town to become the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers.

“He’s a great coach, one of the best coaches that I’ve ever had,” Ramsey said. “I feel like he’s a genius.”

‘Smooth like chocolate milk’

John Carroll was undefeated in 2013 and preparing for a big, early November game against a physical Heidelberg University team that had blown them out a year before.

The tension in the room felt palpable, and Staley — the typically serious and focused first-year coordinator — knew the moment called for a different approach.

“He looks at us,” Pines recalled, “and says, ‘You know what song really pumps me up?'”

A smooth melody filled the room, the song “Royals” by Lorde playing, and the rather stiff Staley began to groove.

“He’s like, ‘This is how you gotta be, baby! Smooth like chocolate milk!'” Pines said, chuckling. “It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.”

“That was absolutely the moment where I always look to like, where did the John Carroll defense change?” said Chris Rizzo, another former Blue Streak. “It was that moment in that room.”

With an enrollment of 3,600 students, John Carroll is a relatively unknown small Catholic university 23 miles east of Cleveland. But it has become an NFL factory, producing Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, Los Angeles Chargers general manager Tom Telesco, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Houston Texans general manager Nick Caserio and Rams outside linebackers coach Chris Shula, among others.

At John Carroll, Staley grew a reputation for loving onion rings with hot wings, guzzling coffee and spinning his wedding band around his ring finger when his mind went into overdrive.

He demanded a lot from players, but they respected it. In his first season, he installed a defense that served players’ strengths and turned a cellar-dwelling unit into a top-ranked defense among 250 Division III teams. In Staley’s final season in 2016, the Blue Streaks were crowned conference champions.

Former John Carroll head coach Tom Arth, who is now head coach at Akron, knew within moments of meeting Staley that he would hire him. Staley was coming off a one-year stint as a graduate assistant at Tennessee, preceded by a two-year stay at Hutchinson Community College, where he was defensive coordinator.

“Within the first minute of his starting to talk some football, I just knew he was different,” Arth said. “There’s no other candidates after you meet Brandon.”

Staley encompassed everything Arth wanted: passion, combined with an ability to communicate, teach and quickly earn trust. Plus as a former college quarterback, Staley sees the game from an all-22 perspective, with a deep knowledge for how each side of the ball works.

“Brandon is the same monster with two different heads,” Rizzo said. “He’s got his coaching head and then he’s got his personality, his person head.”

Staley understood how to reach every player, which meant finding ways to relate and communicate with each individual, a trait that caused Dawson to smile this year when he heard Ramsey echo the same sentiment to reporters.

“That’s one of the special things he does,” Dawson said. “I was a super emotional player, I didn’t enjoy being talked to aggressively, so would always pull me to the side. … [Other guys] had to be yelled at because that’s the only way they took coaching.”

Former Blue Streak Brody Zangaro recalled Staley telling players who missed assignments that he would put them on waivers.

“There are no waivers in Division III football,” Zangaro laughed. “This is sort of a testament to him knowing that he would be in the NFL.”

‘He’s about ball’

Jalen Ramsey isn’t easily won over, so when the All-Pro cornerback offers praise, it means something.

“The way he’s opened up the defense and built it around A.D. as it should be — it’s all things that you would think common sense,” Ramsey said, “but the way that he does it is extraordinary.”

Staley kept the base 3-4 defense installed by Phillips, but added elements he learned under Broncos coach Vic Fangio as well as wrinkles of his own style. His goal is to create one-on-one matchups in the run game and two-on-one matchups in the passing game. He does it by utilizing the individual strengths of his players.

“When Brandon came in, there was a clear-cut vision for all of our players and how he saw the ability to accentuate their skill sets,” McVay said.

A season after finishing ninth in defensive efficiency, the Rams have jumped to the top in multiple defensive categories. They rank first in defensive efficiency, yards allowed per game (281.9) and points allowed per game (18.5), and are tied for first in the NFL with four defensive touchdowns.

But perhaps most important to Staley is the production of players not named Donald or Ramsey, who always are expected to produce at a high level.

“When I came here I really wanted to establish that we were a team defense,” said Staley, who remodeled the defense without OTAs or a traditional preseason. “I think that’s what we got done.”

Staley revived the career of outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, whose production in Chicago stalled in four seasons but took on new life in L.A. with 10.5 sacks. Alongside Ramsey — who allowed an average of 23.9 receiving yards per game as the nearest defender, former undrafted free agents Troy Hill and Darious Williams have produced standout performances. Hill has an NFL-best three defensive touchdowns, and Williams intercepted a team-high four passes.

“The dude’s a genius,” Williams said.

Rookie safety Jordan Fuller, a sixth-round pick, has excelled with three interceptions, while Staley entrusted safety John Johnson III to be his defensive signal-caller.

“He’s always studying,” Johnson said about Staley. “He’ll shoot me a text at a random time of the day about something not even important — just about football, something that he saw.”

Donald has turned in another performance worthy of earning him a third NFL Defensive Player of the Year with 13.5 sacks, while defensive lineman Michael Brockers had five — his most since 2013 — and former undrafted free agent Morgan Fox had a career-best six. Sebastian Joseph-Day also grew into a significant contributor up front.

“We’re playing consistent football in his defense,” Donald said.

And, like he did at John Carroll, Staley is still fidgeting with his wedding band when the wheels are turning and connecting with players in a season marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, when meaningful connections can be difficult to make.

“I told him the first time we were on the Zoom call, he had me fired up, ready to go,” Brockers said. “I wanted to put my helmet on, on the Zoom call, because he had me so fired up.”

“He’s about ball,” Ramsey said, “but at the same time he’s a player’s coach.”

Staley is the owner of the “Salty Dog Café,” Johnson said, and you become an official salty dog when you “trick out” (another of Staley’s go-to catchphrases) — disguise a coverage to create an opportunity for another defensive player whom the offense wouldn’t expect to be a factor in the play.

However, he hasn’t tried his former go-to line at John Carroll, play “smooth like chocolate milk,” because — well — this is the NFL. “Pro players are tough,” Staley said, smiling. “It’s hard to impress them.”

“He cracks a couple jokes here and there,” Donald said. “But he definitely brings a lot of excitement and a lot of passion with him.”

Head coach in waiting

Fangio’s phone rang recently with a unique request.

“I had a call from a potential head coach for next season,” Fangio said. “Asked me if I have any more Brandon Staleys to come be his defensive coordinator.”

After three seasons at John Carroll, including a one-year hiatus as defensive coordinator at James Madison, Fangio plucked Staley to join his defensive staff with the Chicago Bears. The defensive guru wanted a coach he could groom to take over outside linebackers — a group that would soon include Khalil Mack — and Staley came highly recommended.

“I asked a lot of questions,” Staley said about his three seasons under Fangio, one with the Bears and two in Denver, where he worked with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. “And he provided me a lot of answers.”

Said Fangio: “He’s a football savant in that he loves the game, the historical aspect of the game. He loves to research it and wanted to be up on all the new things.”

Now, after only one season as an NFL defensive coordinator, Staley is earning the opportunity to become a head coach.

“This is the Sean McVay of defense,” said Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who coached three seasons with Staley between Chicago and Denver. “This is that young, bright mind that sees it all, that can communicate with people.”

The progression to becoming an NFL head coach is one former players have seen coming.

Last year, Chubb signed a jersey for Staley at the request of Staley’s wife, Amy, who was gathering memorabilia to build her husband a long-dreamed-about man cave.

Along with his signature, Chubb wrote: “Can’t wait to see you become a head coach one day.”

“It was just the energy he brought to the meetings, how he approached it,” Chubb said. “You could just tell the aura he had about himself. One of the best dudes I know personally.”

Since 2012, five coaches have made the jump to head coach after their first season as an NFL defensive coordinator, including Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who is 28-19 over three seasons, and Steve Wilks, who was fired after a single 3-13 season with the Cardinals in 2018.

Staley’s NFL resume might be short — one season as coordinator, three as outside linebackers coach — but it doesn’t feel that way to him.

“I felt like I was having this double education,” Staley said. “I was coaching in college, but I felt like I was coaching the pros at the same time because I was studying.”

“Selfishly, I would love to have Coach Staley for obviously the rest of this year and next year and my career here,” Ramsey said. “But, I mean, he would be a great head coach, and there’s a lot of teams in the league right now who could use him.”

ESPN’s Jeff Legwold contributed to this story.

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Pondering retirement again, Drew Brees has ‘no regrets’ about coming back this season

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NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees was still on the Superdome field nearly two hours after what was probably his final game in the New Orleans Saints’ historic home building.

Brees, who is widely expected to retire after 20 seasons, did not officially announce his intentions after a disappointing 30-20 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the divisional round of the playoffs. But he made sure to soak it all in.

Brees and his wife Brittany spent time playing with their four children — some football and some gymnastics. He also spent time chatting with longtime friend and rival Tom Brady. After the two all-time great quarterbacks shared a hug, Brady even threw a pass to one of Brees’ kids before moving on to the NFC Championship Game.

Brees, who turned 42 on Friday, was hoping to reach his fourth NFC title game and his second Super Bowl this year. Instead, threw three interceptions in a playoff game for the first time in his career while Tampa Bay rallied back from a 20-13 deficit in the third quarter.

“I’m gonna give myself an opportunity to think about the season, think about a lot of things, just like I did last year and make a decision,” Brees said when asked directly if he just played his final game.

He said Sunday’s performance or the way the season ended would have no bearing on his decision. But when asked what would weigh into the decision, Brees said, “I’ll keep that to myself right now.”

Brees did add, however, that he had no regrets about coming back this year after he nearly retired after last season.

“I would never regret it. Never,” said Brees, who missed four games in November and December because of a punctured lung and 11 broken ribs — but still helped the Saints earn the No. 2 seed in the NFC with a 12-4 record before their disappointing finish.

“No complaints. No regrets. Man, I’ve always tried to play this game with a great respect and a great reverence for it. And I appreciate all that this game has given to me,” said Brees, who led the Saints to their only Super Bowl win in franchise history in 2009 and holds the NFL record for career passing yards. “There are obviously so many incredible memories, so many incredible relationships that have come as a result of playing this game. And, man, you find out so much about yourself and you have to fight through so much when you play this game.

“And I’d say this season, I probably had to fight through more than I’ve ever had to in any other season in my career — from injury to all the COVID stuff to just crazy circumstances. And it was worth every moment of it. Absolutely.”

Saints coach Sean Payton also said he couldn’t speak for Brees and didn’t want to spend time reflecting on his future Hall of Fame career just yet.

“Oh listen, I think that’s probably for another press conference,” Payton said. “That would take up all of my time on your question tonight. Obviously, he’s been tremendous for this team, this city, I could go on and on. But let’s wait and answer that at the right time.”

Other teammates, from veteran linebacker Demario Davis to young receiver Tre’Quan Smith, both used the exact same word when asked what Brees has meant to them — “everything.”

Unfortunately, if this was Brees’ final game, he didn’t get the kind of career send-off that fellow all-time greats like John Elway or Peyton Manning got. In fact, it was the exact opposite.

Brees completed 19 of 34 passes for just 134 yards with one touchdown on a night when he struggled to get the ball downfield even more than usual. The Saints’ biggest passing play came when backup Jameis Winston threw a 56-yard TD pass on a trick-play flea-flicker that the Saints stole from the Chicago Bears a week earlier.

And Brees failed to connect even once with top receiver Michael Thomas on four targets. Brees’ first interception in the second quarter came when the Saints were leading 6-3 and he underthrew Thomas. Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting pounced in front of it and nearly returned it for a touchdown.

Brees then threw another pick in the fourth quarter when the Saints were trailing 23-20 and linebacker Devin White undercut Alvin Kamara down the middle of the field. The third interception came on a tipped pass when the Saints were trailing 30-20 with less than five minutes remaining.

Tight end Jared Cook also lost a critical fumble in the third quarter when the Saints were leading 20-13 and had just crossed midfield.

“I’d say it’s pretty uncharacteristic because we preach playing ‘winning football.’ And you turn the ball over four times, that’s not ‘winning football’ — especially in the playoffs, especially against a team like that,” said Brees, who blamed himself for the interceptions.

“Well, a couple of them I probably shouldn’t have thrown and maybe forced it in there. And we were probably just a little off on the overall execution,” Brees said. “But at the end of the day, that’s what this game came down to was those turnovers.”

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Defense stars as Tampa Bay Buccaneers reach conference championship in Tom Brady’s first season in NFC

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The Buccaneers signed quarterback Tom Brady this offseason for moments like this: to go head-to-head with a New Orleans Saints team that has had an unrelenting grip on the NFC South, to get Tampa Bay back to the postseason for the first time in 13 years, and to become the first team in NFL history to host a hometown Super Bowl.

The Bucs are one step away from completing that trilogy.

In the second stop of a playoff odyssey that began with a wild-card game on the road — a first in Brady’s 21-year career — Tampa Bay defeated New Orleans 30-20 on Sunday night.

Up next: Lambeau Field, against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game. It will be Brady’s 14th conference title game and the Bucs’ fourth, after most recently defeating the Philadelphia Eagles 27-10 on the road en route to winning Super Bowl XXXVII following the 2002 season.

“Just so proud of everyone. The whole organization,” said Brady, acknowledging the challenges of no offseason while playing in a new offense with so many new pieces. “Our coaches have put in so much work and effort getting us to this point, preparing us every day, and just done an amazing job. Guys really come together. It’s a really unique team. We have great chemistry. We have fun at practice. We worked really hard to get to this point, just like the other three teams remaining.”

The Saints had swept the Bucs in the regular season, outscoring them by 46 points in two games.

“We had to look ourselves in the mirror and challenge ourselves on who we wanted to be,” said Bucs inside linebacker Devin White, who finished with 11 tackles (10 solo), a tackle for a loss, a QB hit, a pass breakup, a fumble recovery and an interception. “Everybody always asked, ‘What was our identity?’ We didn’t have an answer. But Coach BA [Bruce Arians] had an answer. He said, ‘We’re some motherf—ers who are gonna find a way to win the game.’

“This is a different football team than [the one that lost to the Saints 38-3 in Week 9]. I’ve tried telling everybody but nobody wants to believe me — but this is the way we’re capable of playing defensively. We’ve had some rough spots at times, but we’ve had some really, really good times, and this is one of the best times.”

Against the Saints, Brady completed 18 of 33 passes for 199 yards, two touchdowns through the air, one on the ground and no interceptions. He is now 3-5 against Saints quarterback Drew Brees, although defense and the ground game told the story. The Saints frequently lined up with deep safeties, focusing on preventing big plays downfield.

Bucs running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones combined for 169 yards from scrimmage. Saints receiver Michael Thomas was held without a catch, and the Bucs got three takeaways that led to touchdowns.

“The way the defense played today — they were spectacular,” Brady said. “The way the offensive line played, Leonard, Ro — it was just huge. All those guys came up big. We talked about it all week, what we were gonna need to win, to get it accomplished and it’s a long ways from the last time we played these guys at home, and certainly [from where] we started the season here. It’s a lot better feeling sitting in this tent this time around than the first time I was sitting here about 18 weeks ago.”

Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting picked off Brees on a pass intended for Thomas in the second quarter, returning it 36 yards to the New Orleans 3-yard line. Then, Bucs receiver Mike Evans punctuated the possession with a 3-yard touchdown — his first catch of the season against Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

Then in the third quarter, Bucs rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. dislodged the ball from the hands of Saints tight end Jared Cook, with White scooping it up and returning it 18 yards. Fournette then caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from Brady on a slant route.

In the fourth quarter, White picked off Brees on a pass intended for New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara, with Brady eventually running it in for a 1-yard score. Later, Bucs safety Mike Edwards picked off a pass from Brees that was tipped by Bucs linebacker Lavonte David.

“It was always in the back of my mind how they embarrassed us,” Fournette said, referring to the Bucs’ 38-3 loss to the Saints in Week 9, which tight end Cam Brate described as “rock bottom” and several others called the low point of the season.

While Sunday marked Brady’s 14th win in a divisional playoff game, it was just his second divisional win on the road, in his first season in the NFC.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur noted how much his players fed off having fans in their stadium Saturday against the Los Angeles Rams, in a game in which MVP favorite Aaron Rodgers gave a performance for the ages against the league’s No. 1 defense.

Wide receiver Davante Adams even proclaimed, “Nobody can stop us.”

The Bucs did, however, in Week 6, stunning the Packers 38-10 at home, sacking Rodgers four times, intercepting him twice and holding the Packers to a season-low one touchdown.

That same Packers team scored on each of its first five possessions Saturday, in Rodgers’ eighth playoff game in which he was responsible for at least three touchdowns, passing Brett Favre for third most in NFL history.

The Bucs achieved some history of their own Sunday, becoming the ninth team in NFL history and the first since the New York Giants in 2007 to defeat an opponent in the playoffs after being swept by it in the regular season.

Brady is a career 9-4 in league championship games, but he’s 3-3 in those games on the road. Brady is also 4-2 all-time against the Packers and 1-1 at Lambeau, while Rodgers has lost three straight conference championships.

“It’s hard to get to this point,” Brady said. “There’s nothing guaranteed from this point forward. But we’ve gotta go out there and we’ve gotta play our very best to beat one of the best teams in the league.”

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