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Buccaneers top Saints for first NFC title game berth since 2002 season

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and the Bucs will travel to play Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers next week at Lambeau Field in Wisconsin. File Photo by Brian Kersey/UPI
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and the Bucs will travel to play Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers next week at Lambeau Field in Wisconsin. File Photo by Brian Kersey/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 17 (UPI) -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers used a second-half surge to beat the New Orleans Saints 30-20 in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs Sunday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Tom Brady and the Buccaneers' offense turned four Saints turnovers -- including three Drew Brees interceptions -- into three touchdowns, with Tampa Bay scoring 17 unanswered points late in the second half to clinch its first NFC Championship Game berth since the 2002-03 season.

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Two of those scores following a Saints turnover came on short passes to receiver Mike Evans and running back Leonard Fournette. After Brees was picked off by linebacker Devin White in the fourth quarter, Brady drove the Buccaneers to the Saints' 1-yard line, where he punched it in to book his 14th trip to a conference title game.

The 43-year-old Brady and the Bucs will travel to play Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers next week at Lambeau Field in Wisconsin.

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"We worked hard to get to this point," Brady said. "Two road playoff wins is pretty sweet. We've got to go beat a great football team we know pretty well. Aaron's playing incredible."

Meanwhile, Brees' NFL career could be over after 20 seasons in the league, including 15 with the Saints. Fox Sports reported before Sunday's game that Brees, who is under contract for one more year, will retire whenever New Orleans is finished in the postseason.

In what could have been his final game, Brees completed 19 of 34 passes for 134 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.

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Brady was 18 of 33 passing for 199 yards and two touchdowns. Unlike his previous two regular-season meetings against the Saints, he wasn't picked off and took only one sack.

"Really just locking in and playing a lot better than we did the first two times we played them," Brady said. "We had a bunch of turnovers last time. This time they turned it over and that's usually the story of football games."

The Saints jumped out to a 6-0 lead in the first quarter after two field goals from Wil Lutz. The Buccaneers responded with 10 unanswered points to grab a 10-6 lead early in the second frame.

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Later in the second quarter, Saints head coach Sean Payton dialed up a trick play involving backup quarterback Jameis Winston, who fired a 56-yard touchdown pass to receiver Tre'Quan Smith. Winston lined up at receiver and received a lateral from Emmanuel Sanders before finding Smith down the middle of the field.

Buccaneers kicker Ryan Succop booted a 37-yard field goal as time expired to even the score at 13 to end the first half.

Brees tossed a 16-yard touchdown pass to Smith that put the Saints ahead 20-13 early in the third quarter, and New Orleans looked ready to build on that lead when Brees connected with tight end Jared Cook on third down near midfield.

But Buccaneers rookie defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. stripped Cook from behind and White scooped up the loose ball. Five plays later, Brady found Fournette over the middle for a 6-yard touchdown.

Succop made a 36-yard field goal with a little under 10 minutes left in the final quarter to give the Bucs the lead for good, and Brady's 1-yard plunge sealed the victory.

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