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.”
Kansas City Chiefs FB Anthony Sherman retires after 10 NFL seasons
“Kansas City, thanks for all the memories,” Sherman said in a video he posted to Twitter. “It’s been a great run: eight years, Super Bowls. But it’s on to the next chapter.”
— Anthony Sherman (@Shermanator_42) March 4, 2021
Sherman, 32, played eight seasons for the Chiefs, mostly on special teams. Occasionally, the Chiefs would get him the ball, and he often delivered. He rushed for 73 yards, caught 53 passes and scored five touchdowns.
Sherman was selected in 2018 to play in the Pro Bowl.
He joined the Chiefs in 2013 in a trade with the Arizona Cardinals, for whom he played two seasons.
GM George Paton says Denver Broncos want Von Miller back in 2021, pending legal issues, contract
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — With a decision about Von Miller‘s future looming, Denver Broncos general manager George Paton said Thursday that the team wants the linebacker back for 2021 but is waiting to hear more on potential legal issues Miller may have and did not rule out a discussion about a pay cut for him to return.
“We’re still working through it with Von, his agent, and in regards to the legal process, we’re just going to let the legal process play out,” Paton said. “But obviously it’s a serious situation, but we want to let it play out before we comment on that.”
Miller, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and the Super Bowl 50 MVP, has an option clause in his contract that if the Broncos pick it up would guarantee $7 million of Miller’s $17.5 million base salary and engage the final year of a six-year, $114.5 million deal he signed in 2016.
The Broncos, as well as Miller, are still waiting on a decision from the district attorney in the 18th Judicial District in suburban Denver to determine whether Miller will be charged in the wake of an investigation by the Parker, Colorado, police department. Neither the police nor the district attorney’s office has released details of what specific charges Miller could face.
Miller has not responded to requests for comment. If charges are filed, Miller could face the prospect of league discipline as well.
Asked whether Miller’s return could also hinge on a salary cut, Paton said:
“We want to bring Von back; we’re still working through that, I don’t want to get into everything, but we want to bring him back. Obviously the legal process, what he’s going through, it’s a serious situation, obviously, and I don’t know all the details, but we respect what’s going on. We do want Von back.”
Miller missed all of the 2020 season after an ankle injury just days before the season opener. At the time, coach Vic Fangio said he had expected Miller to have “a hell of a year.”
Miller’s eight sacks in 2019 were his lowest total since 2013, when he finished with five sacks after serving a six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and then suffering a torn ACL in December of that year.
Miller leads all active players who were on NFL rosters last season with 106 sacks.
Miller is the longest-tenured Broncos player and was John Elway’s first draft pick as the team’s top football executive. Elway stepped away from the general manager’s role earlier this year before Paton was hired in January.
Other topics Paton and Fangio addressed Thursday:
“[I] did a deep dive with Drew … very talented, was inconsistent at times, has a lot to work on, but I’ve spoken with Drew … he really wants to be great,” Paton said. “We’re always going to bring in competition at every position, quarterback as well, but I like the track Drew’s on … He does have all the traits you look for in a quarterback.”
“We’re going to be aggressive, we’re going to be in every deal, doesn’t mean we’re going to make that deal, but we’re going to look into everything, whether it’s a quarterback or a defensive lineman, anything to help our football team, we’re going to pursue it.”
Paton also said that he would not publicly discuss any quarterback on another team’s roster, such as Deshaun Watson, and that the Broncos would consider using the No. 9 pick in the draft on a quarterback “if it’s the best player on the board, we’re going to take him.”
On re-signing safety Justin Simmons, who played on the franchise player tag last season and is poised to be an unrestricted free agent, Paton said: “Justin is one of our core guys, and our goal since I got here was to sign him to a long-term deal. We’ve had good discussions with his agent. I don’t know if we’ll get a deal done or not, but that’s our goal. He’s the type of guy we’d want to extend.”
The return of right tackle Ja’Wuan James, who opted out this past season over concerns with COVID-19.
Both Paton and Fangio said that they had spoken with James and that James was set to return to Denver area in the coming weeks to train.
Paton added that he was already trying to re-sign defensive end Shelby Harris, who will be an unrestricted free agent, and that he has talked to safety Kareem Jackson‘s representatives. Jackson has an option year in his contract for 2021 that the Broncos have to decide to exercise by the start of the new league year.
“We’ve got to work through some things; we’d like Kareem back,” Paton said. ” … We’ll see if we can do that.”
Thomas Morstead, longtime standout New Orleans Saints punter, released after 12 seasons
METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Saints released Thomas Morstead, who has been one of the NFL’s best punters over the past 12 years and was responsible for one of the most iconic moments in franchise history.
Morstead was the one who executed the Saints’ surprise onside kick as a rookie during Super Bowl XLIV. He went on to make the Pro Bowl in 2012. And he ranks among the top punters in NFL history in both yards per punt (46.5) and net average (41.7).
Morstead, who turns 35 next week, said he intends to keep playing — though he and his family will always make New Orleans their home. The Saints released him in part because of their severe salary-cap constraints and in part because he had a rare down season in 2020.
He was the highest-paid punter in the NFL at an average salary of $3.9 million per year but admittedly failed to live up to his standard of “elite consistency” in 2020 while dealing with an offseason back injury and an eye issue that bothered him for about a year and a half. But he said both issues have been corrected, and he’s confident he will play at a higher level going forward.
Morstead was set to earn $3.5 million in salary and bonuses this year, with a cap charge of $4.5 million. He will still count $2 million in dead money against the salary cap.
The Saints, meanwhile, could potentially turn to second-year punter Blake Gillikin, who spent last year on injured reserve after an impressive offseason. Morstead gave Gillikin a strong endorsement while saying that he tried to impart as much wisdom and advice as he could to him last season.
“I’m overwhelmed with gratitude,” Morstead said during an emotional video conference Thursday. “The experience I’ve had with the Saints — there’s not one part of it that I would complain about. The whole thing has just been outstanding. I’m obviously sad to be moving on from the team, but it’s not as if I haven’t prepared for this moment in a lot of different ways. But it is shocking.”
Morstead said he was surprised the Saints didn’t talk to him about staying at a reduced rate — but he said he has nothing but “love and respect” for how the team has treated him. And he said last season “obviously didn’t meet any of the standards that I’ve set for myself in previous years.”
“Let’s just call it what it was,” Morstead said. “When you’re the highest paid player at your position, the expectation is that you’re playing at an elite level. And I didn’t do that last year, and I think it was pretty clear to see.
“You know, I’ve never been the biggest boomer in the league. I’ve just always been a guy that relies on elite consistency. And I think it was pretty clear that was lacking this year.”
Nevertheless, Morstead adapted with a more conservative approach and helped the Saints set a record for the fewest punt return yards allowed in NFL history (a total of 46 all season).
To play with one of the best punters in the game was a privilege, but to break record(s) with one of the best is legendary. Appreciate you for always believing in me @thomasmorstead ! It was never taken for granted! Always love brother 🤞🏾🖤 pic.twitter.com/WZgud2OKlm
— Justin Hardee Sr. (@jhardee_19) March 4, 2021
One of Morstead’s memorable career highlights came in unconventional fashion during the Saints’ 2018 “Minneapolis Miracle” playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
Vikings fans took notice of the way Morstead fought through the pain of torn cartilage in his ribs in that game – even coming out to line up as a defensive tackle on the Vikings’ final two-point conversion kneel-down when most players had already left the field. So they started a grassroots campaign to make donations to his “What You Give Will Grow” charity foundation, which wound up receiving more than $200,000.
Morstead has also been the team’s nominee for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award in the past, and he has been a member of the NFL Players Association’s executive committee.
“Thomas has been a very important part of the New Orleans Saints organization and our community since 2009,” Sean Payton said in a statement. “It has been an honor to have coached him and to have witnessed his growth as a player and a person. He has been a great leader and mentor to many younger players throughout his career, and his Pro Bowl level of play year-in and year-out has been remarkable. I know that Thomas will be highly successful in the future and am grateful to have had the opportunity to coach him.”
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis added: “Thomas Morstead has been the epitome of the consummate pro since the day we selected him in the 2009 NFL Draft. He has been a remarkable punter and an outstanding leader in the locker room and eight-time team captain. His work in the community has been nothing short of remarkable. We know that as we approach the beginning of the NFL calendar year that very difficult decisions have to be made, and this certainly falls into this category. We appreciate the dedication and professionalism that Thomas has brought to our organization from the moment he joined our team and sincerely wish both he and his family the best.”
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