LANDOVER, Md. (AP) — New team, same swashbuckling playoff success for Tom Brady.
Brady threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers past Washington 31-23 in their NFC wild-card game Saturday night for their first playoff victory since the 2002 season. Brady was critical of his play and the offense’s performance in the red zone but relished picking up his 31st career postseason win.
“Certainly a lot to improve on, but great to get a win,” said Brady, who was 22 of 40 passing. “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.”
In his 42nd postseason start and first not in a New England Patriots uniform, Brady made the most of a lack of early pressure to build a lead against the NFL’s second-ranked defense that held up.
“He is a fighter, he plays hard, works hard and studies hard, and he is the man for the job,” Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette said.
Brady had to outduel Washington’s Taylor Heinicke, who had a breakout performance in just his second pro start and first in the playoffs in place of injured starter Alex Smith. Heinicke — signed in early December to the practice squad — ran for 46 yards and a touchdown and threw for 306 yards and a score.
“He almost beat us with his legs,” Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said. “He was very elusive. We knew he was going to scramble around, there was going to be bootlegs and scrambles. We were really hoping for Alex because we knew that part of the game wasn’t going to be in there.”
But Heinicke wasn’t enough to overcome Brady’s off-and-on brilliance. While Bill Belichick and the Patriots watch from home with their playoff streak snapped at 11 following a 7-9 season, Brady has the opportunity to play in another Super Bowl — in his new home stadium.
“We’re thrilled with the win,” Buccaneers tight end Cameron Brate said. “I hate to say that we’re relieved, but at this point we’re just pumped we got the win. No matter how ugly it was, no matter how many mistakes we made, a win’s a win this time of year.”
The Buccaneers await the result of Chicago at New Orleans on Sunday to see if they’ll be visiting Drew Brees and the Saints or host the Los Angeles Rams next weekend. They’d need a Bears upset to play at home in the divisional round.
“It doesn’t matter,” Arians said. “We’re playing. That’s all that matters.”
Age doesn’t seem to matter much to Brady, who at 43 years, 159 days passed George Blanda as the oldest player to throw a TD pass in a playoff game. A 36-yard scoring connection with Antonio Brown was Brady’s longest in the playoffs since 2011.
Brady was methodical in the first half with 12 completions for 209 yards and wasn’t sacked until the final minute of the second quarter.
Heinicke made things interesting in the third, most notably scrambling for an 8-yard TD by diving at the pylon in the corner of the end zone. The play even got the attention of reigning Super Bowl champion Patrick Mahomes, who tweeted, “Bro what!?!?!”
The 27-year-old banged up his left shoulder and didn’t look the same on the next drive. While Heinicke was getting looked at, Brady engineered a 69-yard scoring drive capped by a 3-yard TD run by Fournette, which made it 28-16 and was enough to withstand Heinicke’s attempt to be the unlikely hero.
“He made the throws that he needed to make,” Washington cornerback Kendall Fuller said of Brady.
With Smith out because of a strained right calf, Heinicke made a name for himself in prime time, setting the single-game franchise rushing record for quarterbacks and raising the question of whether he should be considered Washington’s QB of the future.
“It was gutsy,” coach Ron Rivera said. “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.”
Heinicke had only appeared in eight games and started one in the NFL before Saturday and was taking online math classes at Old Dominion when Washington called him to be its “quarantine quarterback.”
“When he first got here a month or so ago, I didn’t know too much about him,” receiver Terry McLaurin said. “The first time I even caught a pass from him was last week. But he earned my respect.”
Brown has a TD catch in four consecutive games dating to the regular season, tying the second-longest streak in franchise history. Mike Evans owns the record at six games and was Tampa Bay’s top receiver against Washington with six catches for 119 yards.
Maybe there’s something about playing at FedEx Field that brings out the best in Brown. In his only other game at Washington in 2016 with Pittsburgh, he had eight catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns.
Evans played through a knee injury suffered in the regular-season finale. Arians said Evans was 85-90% healthy.
Buccaneers: RG Alex Cappa left late in the second quarter with an ankle injury and did not return. Arians said it looks like a fracture and expects further X-rays, but added it “doesn’t look good” for Cappa to play next weekend.
Washington: RB Antonio Gibson limped off after a play in the first quarter, but stayed in. He has been dealing with a lingering toe injury that caused him to miss two recent games.
Washington: Lost in the wild-card round just like its last playoff appearance five years ago.
Buccaneers: In the divisional round next weekend will visit Drew Brees and the Saints if New Orleans beats Chicago or host the Los Angeles Rams if the Bears pull the upset Sunday.