TAMPA, Fla. — The final score on Sunday — Tampa Bay 31, Philadelphia 15 — could not have surprised many people.
The second-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered their N.F.C. wild-card matchup against the seventh-seeded Philadelphia Eagles at Raymond James Stadium as winners of seven of their last eight games and with the most experienced player in the postseason in their huddle.
That player, the 44-year-old quarterback Tom Brady, led them to a Super Bowl win last year and this season had one of the best years in his 22-year N.F.L. career, throwing for more than 5,000 yards for only the second time. His total of 5,316 passing yards in the 2021 season was a league high.
With the win, Tampa Bay advanced to the second round of the playoffs, and Brady’s record in playoff games swelled to 35-11.
The Buccaneers drove with ease and stopped Philadelphia’s attempts at scoring almost as effortlessly. One of Coach Bruce Arians’s main criticisms on Sunday was that his team did not hold the Eagles scoreless.
“When you have a chance to shut somebody out, you don’t relax,” he said.
The Buccaneers knew what the Eagles liked to do. Philadelphia built its offensive identity on running the ball in the regular season, finishing as the league’s top rushing team. So Tampa Bay eliminated Philadelphia’s strength, loading up against the run and daring quarterback Jalen Hurts to throw downfield.
Hurts struggled in the first playoff start of his young career. He completed 23 of 43 passes for 258 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. He missed several reads on open receivers and was consistently pressured by Tampa Bay’s defense, which blitzes more than most other teams in the league.
2021 N.F.L. Season News and Analysis
- The Bills Are Near-Perfect in Win Over Patriots: Buffalo scored touchdowns on all seven of its offensive possessions against one of the N.F.L.’s best defenses.
- What Happened in Saturday’s N.F.L. Playoff Games: Here’s how the Bills’ and Bengals’ wins could affect division-round matchups.
- The Reason Every Playoff Team Will Lose: All but one remaining team have a fatal flaw.
- The Buccaneers’ Offense Works Because of This Man (and Tom Brady): Byron Leftwich has customized gameplans to a hodgepodge of stars, injury replacements and holdovers.
- Are the Cardinals Cursed?: Arizona has the longest championship drought in American sports. A long-forgotten N.F.L. title theft may be the reason.
In the first half, Hurts missed the rookie receiver DeVonta Smith, who was open on a crossing route on third-and-long. Hurts dumped the ball instead to running back Miles Sanders for a 1-yard gain, and the Eagles were forced to punt.
Smith was not targeted in the first half, and most of his 60 receiving yards, on four receptions, came after the game’s outcome had been decided.
The Buccaneers benefited from the return of the linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Lavonte David and the edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul, all of whom had injuries. Barrett, who had missed the previous two games with a knee injury, had a one-handed interception in the third quarter that seemed to end any chance Philadelphia had of mounting a comeback.
Barrett looked very healthy when he was running, Arians said jokingly of his player’s 17-yard interception return.
On the ensuing possession, Brady found receiver Mike Evans for a score, which was Brady’s second touchdown pass of the game.
His first was on the Buccaneers’ previous drive. The Eagles had tightened up slightly on defense after falling into a 17-0 hole in the first quarter. They had gotten pressure on Brady with a four-man rush and sacked him three times (four total). At the beginning of the third quarter, the Eagles forced a rare Tampa Bay three-and-out and had a chance to get the ball to the offense with good field position.
Receiver Jalen Reagor fumbled the punt, however, and the Eagles, guilty of three turnovers in the game, gifted Tampa Bay the ball in Philadelphia territory.
Brady found his reliable tight end, Rob Gronkowski, wide open in the end zone five plays later. That was after Brady fired a 17-yard pass to Evans to set up the score.
The Buccaneers marched to a Super Bowl victory last season with one of the healthiest rosters in the postseason, and they returned most of those players this season. Despite having one of the most talented rosters in the league (five Pro Bowlers and two players on All-Pro teams), Tampa Bay faced injuries to key players on both sides of the ball all season.
The team’s top running back, Leonard Fournette, has missed time with an ankle injury. Tampa Bay’s All-Pro offensive lineman, Tristan Wirfs, injured his ankle early in Sunday’s game. Chris Godwin, the Buccaneers’ threatening slot receiver, tore his anterior cruciate ligament against the Saints in December. Antonio Brown, whom Brady lobbied for the team to sign last season, was recently released by the team.
That left Evans, Brady’s third receiving target, who had been dealing with a lingering hamstring injury. He caught ninepasses for 117 yards on Sunday. After his third-quarter touchdown, Evans did a back flip into the end zone, appearing to end any questions about his health.
After a 4-11-1 season in 2020 that was derailed by injuries and struggles by the starting quarterback Carson Wentz, the Eagles fired their head coach, Doug Pederson, whose relationship with Wentz had deteriorated. Pederson had coached Philadelphia to a Super Bowl win in the 2017 season. The team owner Jeffrey Lurie brought in the former Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, a little-known candidate at the time.
After losing five of their first seven games, the Eagles won six of their final eight and clinched a playoff berth as the second team in the N.F.C. East, behind the Dallas Cowboys, to make the postseason. Sirianni was the only first-year head coach to lead his team to the playoffs.
Many had questioned if the Eagles had been tested enough, though. Of those eight games, only one team, Dallas, made the playoffs. The Eagles beat the Broncos, the injury-battered Saints, the Giants once in two games, the Jets and the Washington Football Team.
After Sunday’s game, Evans was asked who he would like to see in the next round of the playoffs. Evans, a receiver, took only a few seconds to answer.
“Whatever team plays the most man coverage,” he said.