Brady, Bucs hold off Packers to punch SB ticket

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Tom Brady is going back to the Super Bowl. For a 10th time. At the age of 43.

But this time it comes as the quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Brady and the Bucs knocked off the No. 1-seeded Green Bay Packers 31-26 in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field. They will now face the winner of Sunday’s AFC Championship Game — either the defending Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs or the Buffalo Bills — at Raymond James Stadium in Super Bowl LV.

The Bucs will become the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in their own stadium, while Brady will become the oldest player at any position to play in a Super Bowl.

The Bucs hadn’t been to the postseason in 13 years or won a postseason game in nearly two decades — when Brady’s reign with the New England Patriots had just begun. Yet Tampa Bay emerged as the free-agency dark horse no one saw coming when Brady decided to leave the Patriots in the offseason.

Many felt it was arguably the biggest professional risk of Brady’s professional career to leave his longtime coach, Bill Belichick, and go to the Bucs. To make things worse, Brady had no offseason to collaborate with coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and no preseason to work out the kinks in a new system because of COVID-19. Critics pointed to his struggles with the deep ball. They feared his relationship with Arians was already unraveling.

Against the Packers, Brady completed 20 of 36 passes for 280 yards and three touchdowns, with Leonard Fournette spinning his way to a fourth score on the ground.

The defense, playing with 347-pound nose tackle Vita Vea for the first time since Week 5, sacked Rodgers five times — three from Shaq Barrett and two from Jason Pierre-Paul and forced two turnovers. Nickelback Sean Murphy-Bunting picked off Rodgers in the second quarter, and safety Jordan Whitehead forced a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Devin White.

But then Whitehead left the game with a shoulder injury, leaving the Bucs without both of their starting safeties as the Packers began to rally in the second half. Brady threw three second-half interceptions — twice to cornerback Jaire Alexander and once to safety Adrian Amos — with Rodgers throwing touchdowns to tight end Robert Tonyan and wide receiver Davante Adams.

The Packers had a chance to tie the game down eight points with the ball at Tampa Bay’s 8 yard line but decided to kick a field goal on fourth down with just over 2 minutes to go in the game. They never got the ball back after punting.

Brady now gets to try and do something his boyhood idol Joe Montana could not: go all the way with a new team in his first year. Montana came close, leading the Chiefs to the AFC Championship Game in 1993, but lost to the Bills 30-13.

So it’s back to Tampa for Brady and the Bucs. How fitting that as workers transformed Raymond James Stadium over the last few weeks — replacing Buccaneers’ signage with that of “Super Bowl LV” and the Lombardi Trophy — that they conveniently kept one panel of the outer facade intact, at the southwest corner entrance: the image of Tom Brady and Mike Evans.

Might as well leave it up. And maybe fire the cannons