The walls around him had cracked and started to crumble, and Tom Brady strolled past without a care. Some of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ best offensive players had been lost to either injury or, in the case of Antonio Brown, self-immolation. In the past month, the Buccaneers had been shut out and nearly blown a victory against the lowly New York Jets. The defending champions had wobbled back into January.
The playoffs had arrived, though, and so here came Brady, swigging from an oversized water bottle, designer bag slung around his shoulder, just the right amount of gel holding every hair in place. He faced circumstances that would have confounded other quarterbacks. For Brady, they did not matter, if they existed at all.
Brady and the Buccaneers stormed into the divisional round Sunday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa with a 31-15 destruction of the Philadelphia Eagles, who were willing accomplices in their own elimination. Tampa Bay held the Eagles to 12 yards on their first three possessions, took a 31-0 lead midway through the third quarter and turned the fourth quarter into little more than calisthenics. The Buccaneers had not won a playoff game since 2002 before Brady arrived last year, and they are 5-0 in the postseason since.
“I don’t ever take it for granted,” wide receiver Mike Evans said. “When he came to this team, I knew he was going to change the franchise. He’s done that and then some.”
The Buccaneers finished unchallenged on a day that began with complication. Wide receivers Chris Godwin, Cyril Grayson and Brown had been lost. Running back Leonard Fournette, a playoff star last year, had been ruled out Saturday in a mild surprise. Right tackle Tristan Wirfs — “our anchor,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said — suffered an ankle injury on the opening drive that ultimately knocked him out. The health and harmony the Buccaneers enjoyed last January were absent.
But Brady was still there, and that was all that mattered. He toyed with the Eagles, who functioned very much like a surprise playoff entrant with a first-year coach (Nick Sirianni), a second-year quarterback (Jalen Hurts) and a 39-year-old defensive coordinator (Jonathan Gannon) all making postseason debuts. Brady moved the Buccaneers with surgical short passes, completing 29 of 37 throws for 271 yards and two touchdowns.
Given Tampa Bay’s personnel absences, Gannon took a puzzling approach. The weaponry at Brady’s disposable more closely resembled his deficient supporting cast at the end of his New England Patriots tenure than the skill players surrounding him during last year’s Super Bowl march. The Eagles had an opportunity to deploy aggressive coverage and challenge Brady to throw into tight coverage in gusty weather. Instead, Gannon handed Brady a butter knife and said, “Please, murder us with this.”
Brady obliged. The Eagles played soft coverage, and Brady predictably picked them apart with well-timed, accurate short passes, with help from a specious roughing-the-passer call on the opening drive. On one successful third down, Evans — who figured to demand extra attention given the Bucs’ dearth of elite wideouts around him — was able to be matched up against linebacker T.J. Edwards. The Eagles made it easy on Brady, perhaps, but then nothing they conjured could have bothered him.
“He’s seen everything you can imagine,” Sirianni said.
Even when the Eagles’ pass rushers exploited Wirfs’s absence and started to collapse the pocket, Brady outmaneuvered them. Brady held the ball before passes for an average of 2.17 seconds, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the quickest of any game by any quarterback this season. Under Coach Bruce Arians, Brady has thrown deep with greater frequency. But he can thrive with quick throws.
“I don’t think anybody is better at dishing it and dumping it off,” Gronkowski said.
The Buccaneers also adapted without two starting wide receivers and their top two running backs. At the goal line, the Buccaneers deployed a three-tight-end, extra-lineman personnel package they had not used since Week 1 called Jacks — “because us tight ends, we’re all jacked,” Gronkowski said. They scored twice, once on a punishing run from Ke’Shawn Vaughn and once on a pass when Gronkowski stood alone in the back of the end zone.
The Eagles undermined any chances at an upset. At the end of the first half, after their first offensive progress of the afternoon, Hurts rifled one of his two interceptions into the end zone. After Philadelphia’s defense stymied Brady on Tampa Bay’s first second-half possession, Jalen Reagor muffed a punt that should have given the Eagles excellent field position but instead set up the Buccaneers for a game-ender.
“It’s that time of year where the margin of error is really slim,” Brady said.
He provided Philadelphia the lesson firsthand. On the play after Reagor’s fumble, Brady surveyed the Eagles’ defense from 36-yard line and changed Evans’s route from the right slot, instructing him to run a post all the way across the field. Brady faked a handoff. Evans dusted Darius Slay and ran into open territory. The pass — “a dime,” Arians said — hit Evans in stride, and he flipped into the end zone to make it 31-0.
“Once Tom figures you out, man, you’re in trouble,” Arians said. “He’s a surgeon, man. Once he figures you out and we can put him in a position to protect him, he’s going to eat you up.”
Brady cannot appear in a playoff game without summoning a cascade of historical context. The Buccaneers still could become the first team to win consecutive Super Bowls since the 2003 and 2004 Patriots, who were of course quarterbacked by Brady. Brady earned his 35th playoff win Sunday. Second is Joe Montana at 16. A similar chasm exists for Brady and next-best in every significant passing category. It will only grow next week when Tampa Bay hosts the winner of Monday night’s game between the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals. The Buccaneers could be beaten, but any opponent will have to surmount not only Brady’s skill but his unmatched and nearly unfathomable knowledge base.
On Sunday afternoon, Brady had his eyes on the next game. He lamented not converting on fourth and one with a little more than a minute remaining. “Wish we’d have had that,” he said with a grimace. The Buccaneers will have to wait and see about Wirfs’s availability.
But Brady also had plenty to celebrate. The final pass flew over DeVonta Smith’s head and skidded past Brady on the sideline. Brady raised his arms in the air, turned and flung a football into the stands. He will be back next week. He never really goes anywhere.