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Tom Brady leads Buccaneers past Washington, but it wasn’t easy

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The first step: Turn the Buccaneers into winners in the regular season and get them into the playoffs.

Check.

The second step: Start off the postseason with something his new franchise had not done in 18 years.

Check.

This is why Tom Brady came to Tampa Bay. Not to ease into anything. Not to build, slowly and steadily. Brady left the Patriots after 20 years for the sun of Florida, not to retire but to stay active and get another team to the promised land.

Brady did his thing, but the Bucs are going to have to be much better to get Brady to his 10th Super Bowl. For a stretch, the Bucs were unable to corral Taylor Heinicke, the unknown newcomer who made a name for himself with his guile for Washington.

Favored by more than a touchdown on the road, the Buccaneers did just enough, outlasting the sub-.500 Washington Football Team, 31-23, at FedEx Field. Brady moves on, as usual, after the Bucs notched their first playoff victory since 2002.

Leonard Fournette gets congratulations from Tom Brady during the Buccaneers' 28-23 wild-card win over Washington.
Leonard Fournette gets congratulations from Tom Brady during the Buccaneers’ 31-23 wild-card win over Washington.
Getty Images

Heinicke, making his second NFL start at the age of 27, was a dervish, making plays with his arm and especially his legs. His stunning 8-yard touchdown scramble, reaching out to hit the pylon with a head-first dive, brought Washington within 18-16 with 2:15 remaining in the third quarter after a failed two-point conversion try. Just like that, Washington was making Brady earn this.

Just when the Bucs were challenged, Brady (22-of-40, 381 yards, two TDs) heated up. He found Mike Evans for 20 yards. Then, after side-stepping pressure in the pocket, hit Evans for 19 yards to the Washington 3-yard line. Leonard Fournette, carrying the load with Ronald Jones out with a quad issue, powered in for the touchdown and order was restored, with the Bucs ahead 28-16 with 9:11 to go.

Heinicke (26-of-44, 306 yards, one passing TD) had to hit the locker room to have his shoulder checked out, returned and gutted out a 75-yard drive, expertly lofting a pass to Steven Sims for a 15-yard touchdown with 4:51 remaining.

The upset bid did not stick. Brady lofted one to Mike Evans for 35 yards, leading to a Ryan Succop field goal to boost the Tampa lead to eight points with 2:49 to play. Heinicke was sacked by Lavonte David on third down and a desperation fourth down pass to Logan Thomas with 1:51 to go was knocked away.

The Football Team did not have the services of Alex Smith, their inspiring 36-year old quarterback, who was inactive because of a calf injury. Smith went 5-1 as a starter in a season in which he gained recognition as the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year, playing for the first time since a horrific 2018 leg injury that nearly cost him his career and threatened to take his life.

Brady, counting the postseason, made his 341st career start. Heinicke was making his second NFL start. He previously played in eight games for four different teams and was finishing up his degree in engineering from Old Dominion — where he threw 132 touchdown passes in his four-year stay at the school — when he was signed by Washington in early December as an insurance quarantine quarterback. He previously played for the Texans and Panthers, as well as the AFL’s St. Louis Battlehawks — where he did not even start; he was a backup.

The Bucs finished the regular season at 11-5 and were the No. 5 seed in the NFC, forced to hit the road to play at the No. 4 seed — even though Washington was just 7-9, winners of the decrepit NFC East. Brady did what he was brought in to do, pushing the Bucs into the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Brady fired a Tampa franchise-record 40 touchdown passes — the second-highest total in his 21-year career — and his 4,633 yards was his highest total since 2015.

The early moments had the feel of a blowout. The Bucs eased down the field on their first possession and a hit on Brady by Jonathan Allen ruined a third-down pass and limited the damage to a field goal.

Linebacker Kevin Minter on a blitz got just enough of a Heinicke pass to deflect the ball to a diving Sean Murphy-Bunting for an interception on the Tampa 42-yard line. That made it easy for Brady, who launched a third-down pass to Antonio Brown on the right sideline. Brown ran by Jimmy Moreland and was uncovered for a 36-yard touchdown hookup that made it 9-0 after the extra point was blocked. It was Brady’s longest postseason scoring pass in nine years, since the 2011 divisional round. So much for Brady at his advanced age losing any arm strength.

It was a historic pass for Brady, as he became the oldest player (43 years, 159 days) to ever throw a touchdown pass in the postseason. George Blanda in 1970 did it at 43 years and 108 days.

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