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Ben Volin | Instant Analysis

As Tom Brady beats Saints to earn 14th conference title game, why did he have to leave the Patriots again?

Tom Brady sealed the Bucs' with over the Saints with a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter, sending Tampa Bay to Green Bay for next week's NFC title game.
Tom Brady sealed the Bucs' with over the Saints with a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter, sending Tampa Bay to Green Bay for next week's NFC title game.Butch Dill/Associated Press

Instant Analysis from the Buccaneers’ 30-20 win over the Saints and the Chiefs’ 22-17 win over the Browns in Sunday’s NFL Divisional playoffs:

▪ Brady didn’t just beat the Saints on Sunday night and avenge two ugly regular-season losses. He sent a message to Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft, and anyone out there who doubted that Brady could still get it done at 43 years old.

New coach, new teammates, and new opponents for Brady, but the same result — another trip to the conference championship game. After slaying Drew Brees and the Saints, Brady gets a dream matchup against Aaron Rodgers next Sunday at Lambeau Field, in what will be Brady’s 14th career conference championship game. Not too shabby.


It sure makes you wonder: Why is Brady doing this in a Buccaneers uniform and not with the Patriots? It’s not like the Patriots had any sort of succession plan at quarterback. Brady wanted out, but only because the Patriots made it difficult on him. They should have found a way to make Brady want to stay.

Instead, the Patriots went 7-9 and are stuck in QB purgatory, while Brady has thrown 44 touchdowns and is one step away from another Super Bowl as a Tampa Bay Buc. It seems silly in hindsight that the Patriots couldn’t make it work with Brady for a couple more years.

▪ Brady had a tough go against the Saints in the regular season, throwing five interceptions against just two touchdowns in two losses. But he played mistake-free football Sunday, throwing for 199 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. The Bucs are 10-1 when Brady doesn’t throw an interception.

The Saints took away Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, and Rob Gronkowski all game, and the Bucs struggled in the red zone. They had just three long drives all game, and all three finished with field goals. The Bucs’ three touchdowns all came off turnovers and short fields.


But Brady still found a way with Cameron Brate (four catches for 50 yards), Leonard Fournette (five catches for 44 yards and a touchdown), and huge third-down throws to Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson. This was Brady’s 32nd career postseason win, twice as many as the player in second place, Joe Montana.

▪ The first Brady-Drew Brees playoff matchup ended up being kind of a dud. The Saints clamped down on Brady for a good chunk of the game, and Brees sadly looked all of his 42 years on Sunday night. He finished with 134 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions, his first game with three picks since 2016, also against the Bucs.

Brees looked a lot like Peyton Manning in 2015 — he still can throw with good accuracy and touch, but he has absolutely no zip on the ball. Reports emerged before the game that Brees is likely to retire after this season. Sunday night’s game is surely not how he wants to go out, but Brees looks like he’s pretty much out of gas.

▪ If this is it for Brees, he’ll go down as one of the greatest pure passers in NFL history, but his résumé will leave me wanting a little more. He has all of the stats and won a Super Bowl ring, but Brees only went to three NFC Championship Games in 15 seasons with the Saints, has a 9-9 career playoff record, and now has lost a home playoff game in three seasons in a row. For an all-time great quarterback who won nearly 63 percent of his regular-season games with the Saints, Brees’s postseason résumé is a little lacking. That said, he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer.


▪ The Bucs’ defense had a great showing on Sunday night, bouncing back nicely from a shaky performance last week against Washington. Of course, it helped that Brees couldn’t push the ball more than 15 yards downfield, but the Bucs held the Saints to 294 yards and forced four turnovers.

The Bucs were noticeably fast and physical all game and played the role of bully. Alvin Kamara had a quiet 105 total yards, and Michael Thomas had no catches on four targets. If not for a breakdown on a trick-play touchdown pass by Jameis Winston, this could have been a blowout for the Bucs.

Now the Bucs face a much tougher challenge next Sunday against Rodgers, who unlike Brees can definitely throw down the field.

Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers will meet in the NFC title game.
Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers will meet in the NFC title game.Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

▪ Chiefs coach Andy Reid sure has some guts. With the game on the line late in the fourth quarter, needing to run the clock out on the Browns, Reid surprised everyone by calling a passing play on third and 14. Then when Chad Henne’s scramble came up a yard short, Reid went for it on fourth down from midfield instead of punting. Fortune favors the bold, so the saying goes, and the Chiefs rewarded Reid’s aggressiveness by converting the first down and ending the game.


It certainly was risky, but probably the right move, given the circumstances — up 5 points, and playing without Patrick Mahomes. Had the Chiefs simply run down the clock and punted away, the Browns could have potentially driven down the field for the win. Instead, Reid went out and snatched the victory himself.

▪ But Reid deserves a lot of criticism for the play call that got his star quarterback concussed midway through the third quarter. Mahomes was dealing with a toe injury that was clearly hobbling him. On top of it, he’s only, like, the most valuable player on the planet. So why would Reid put Mahomes in harm’s way by calling an option run for him on third and 1? The Chiefs have probably seven other weapons they could give the ball to in that spot, and all would be good options.

Instead, Mahomes got hurt, the Chiefs barely held on for the win, and now they have to worry about Mahomes being ready for the AFC Championship Game. Just an unnecessary risk by Reid.

▪ Got to love seeing Henne come in and close out the game, however. Henne, a second-round pick by the Dolphins in 2008 who has started 54 regular-season games, was making his first postseason appearance in his 13th NFL season. He completed 6 of 8 passes for 66 yards, though he threw a bad interception in the fourth quarter. And Henne, not exactly known for his wheels, had one of the gutsiest runs of his career by scrambling and diving for 13 yards to put the Chiefs in position to seal the game.


The Chiefs will be toast next week if Henne has to start against Buffalo. But seeing the veteran journeyman play a key role in a playoff win for the first time in his career was really neat.

▪ Definitely did not expect to see Henne, Winston, or Ravens backup QB Tyler Huntley throwing passes this weekend. Winston even threw a touchdown — his first of the season, against his former team, no less. But this was a brutal weekend for injuries, with Mahomes and Lamar Jackson both leaving their games in the second half because of concussions. Brees didn’t get injured, but the Saints were without an injured Taysom Hill.

Jackson’s concussion prevented the Ravens from coming back, and Mahomes’s concussion almost cost the Chiefs a victory. Now the Chiefs, and the NFL, cross their fingers and hope that Mahomes can pass the concussion protocol for next Sunday’s AFC Championship against Buffalo. It would ruin the game if Henne has to start.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.