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Defense stars as Tampa Bay Buccaneers reach conference championship in Tom Brady’s first season in NFC

The Buccaneers signed quarterback Tom Brady this offseason for moments like this: to go head-to-head with a New Orleans Saints team that has had an unrelenting grip on the NFC South, to get Tampa Bay back to the postseason for the first time in 13 years, and to become the first team in NFL history to host a hometown Super Bowl.

The Bucs are one step away from completing that trilogy.

In the second stop of a playoff odyssey that began with a wild-card game on the road — a first in Brady’s 21-year career — Tampa Bay defeated New Orleans 30–20 on Sunday night.

Up next: Lambeau Field, against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game. It will be Brady’s 14th conference title game and the Bucs’ fourth, after most recently defeating the Philadelphia Eagles 27–10 on the road en route to winning Super Bowl XXXVII following the 2002 season.

“Just so proud of everyone. The whole organization,” said Brady, acknowledging the challenges of no offseason while playing in a new offense with so many new pieces. “Our coaches have put in so much work and effort getting us to this point, preparing us every day, and just done an amazing job. Guys really come together. It’s a really unique team. We have great chemistry. We have fun at practice. We worked really hard to get to this point, just like the other three teams remaining.”

The Saints had swept the Bucs in the regular season, outscoring them by 46 points in two games.

“We had to look ourselves in the mirror and challenge ourselves on who we wanted to be,” said Bucs inside linebacker Devin White, who finished with 11 tackles (10 solo), a tackle for a loss, a QB hit, a pass breakup, a fumble recovery and an interception. “Everybody always asked, ‘What was our identity?’ We didn’t have an answer. But Coach BA [Bruce Arians] had an answer. He said, ‘We’re some motherf — -ers who are gonna find a way to win the game.’

“This is a different football team than [the one that lost to the Saints 38–3 in Week 9]. I’ve tried telling everybody but nobody wants to believe me — but this is the way we’re capable of playing defensively. We’ve had some rough spots at times, but we’ve had some really, really good times, and this is one of the best times.”

Against the Saints, Brady completed 18 of 33 passes for 199 yards, two touchdowns through the air, one on the ground and no interceptions. He is now 3–5 against Saints quarterback Drew Brees, although defense and the ground game told the story. The Saints frequently lined up with deep safeties, focusing on preventing big plays downfield.

Bucs running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones combined for 169 yards from scrimmage. Saints receiver Michael Thomas was held without a catch, and the Bucs got three takeaways that led to touchdowns.

“The way the defense played today — they were spectacular,” Brady said. “The way the offensive line played, Leonard, Ro — it was just huge. All those guys came up big. We talked about it all week, what we were gonna need to win, to get it accomplished and it’s a long ways from the last time we played these guys at home, and certainly [from where] we started the season here. It’s a lot better feeling sitting in this tent this time around than the first time I was sitting here about 18 weeks ago.”

Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting picked off Brees on a pass intended for Thomas in the second quarter, returning it 36 yards to the New Orleans 3-yard line. Then, Bucs receiver Mike Evans punctuated the possession with a 3-yard touchdown — his first catch of the season against Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

Then in the third quarter, Bucs rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. dislodged the ball from the hands of Saints tight end Jared Cook, with White scooping it up and returning it 18 yards. Fournette then caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from Brady on a slant route.

In the fourth quarter, White picked off Brees on a pass intended for New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara, with Brady eventually running it in for a 1-yard score. Later, Bucs safety Mike Edwards picked off a pass from Brees that was tipped by Bucs linebacker Lavonte David.

“It was always in the back of my mind how they embarrassed us,” Fournette said, referring to the Bucs’ 38–3 loss to the Saints in Week 9, which tight end Cam Brate described as “rock bottom” and several others called the low point of the season.

While Sunday marked Brady’s 14th win in a divisional playoff game, it was just his second divisional win on the road, in his first season in the NFC.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur noted how much his players fed off having fans in their stadium Saturday against the Los Angeles Rams, in a game in which MVP favorite Aaron Rodgers gave a performance for the ages against the league’s №1 defense.

Wide receiver Davante Adams even proclaimed, “Nobody can stop us.”

The Bucs did, however, in Week 6, stunning the Packers 38–10 at home, sacking Rodgers four times, intercepting him twice and holding the Packers to a season-low one touchdown.

That same Packers team scored on each of its first five possessions Saturday, in Rodgers’ eighth playoff game in which he was responsible for at least three touchdowns, passing Brett Favre for third most in NFL history.

The Bucs achieved some history of their own Sunday, becoming the ninth team in NFL history and the first since the New York Giants in 2007 to defeat an opponent in the playoffs after being swept by it in the regular season.

Brady is a career 9–4 in league championship games, but he’s 3–3 in those games on the road. Brady is also 4–2 all-time against the Packers and 1–1 at Lambeau, while Rodgers has lost three straight conference championships.

“It’s hard to get to this point,” Brady said. “There’s nothing guaranteed from this point forward. But we’ve gotta go out there and we’ve gotta play our very best to beat one of the best teams in the league.”

Los Angeles Chargers hire Rams’ Brandon Staley as coach

COSTA MESA, Calif. — The Los Angeles Chargers have agreed to terms with Brandon Staley to become their next head coach, the team announced Sunday night.

He will be formally introduced at a news conference on Thursday.

Staley served the past season as the Los Angeles Rams’ defensive coordinator, developing the top-ranked defense in the NFL behind star defensive tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

Staley’s unit propelled the Rams to a 10–6 season and a wild-card playoff win over the Seattle Seahawks before the team exited the postseason with a loss to the Green Bay Packers on Saturday. In his first year as an NFL coordinator, Staley’s defense ranked №1 in efficiency, yards allowed per game and points allowed per game.

With the Chargers, Staley replaces coach Anthony Lynn, who was fired after four seasons and a 33–31 record.

The Chargers are coming off a 7–9 season that resulted in a third-place finish in the AFC West.

However, Staley inherits a roster that includes several cornerstone players, including rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, who became the youngest quarterback in NFL history to throw 30 touchdown passes in single season. Staley also takes over a defensive unit that includes Pro Bowl defensive end Joey Bosa and All-Pro safety Derwin James.

“It’s hard to put into words just how excited I am for the opportunity to be the Los Angeles Chargers’ Head Coach,” Staley said in a statement. “While this is certainly a dream come true, it’s also a dream that’s just beginning. There’s a reason this was probably the most sought after job out there — from ownership, to the fans, to the city, to the men in that locker room — it’s the total package.”

The 38-year-old Staley has quickly risen through the NFL ranks since he first was hired as a position coach in 2017 with the Chicago Bears. He spent two seasons in Chicago under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio before he followed Fangio to the Denver Broncos, where he spent one season as outside linebackers coach before joining the Rams’ staff.

Ramsey told ESPN that he has been in touch with James about Staley’s hiring and that James was very “excited” about his new coach. Ramsey has been a vocal advocate of Staley’s throughout the coach’s one season with the Rams.

“He would make a lot of organizations happy because he’s a great guy. He’s about ball, but at the same time he’s a players’ coach, and I love that about him, and I hope he’s here for a while,” Ramsey said last month. “But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this is a one-and-done thing. I would be happy for him.”

Prior to coaching in the NFL, Staley coached for three seasons at John Carroll University, a Division III college in University Heights, Ohio, and also spent a season as defensive coordinator at James Madison University.

“His coaching journey to this particular moment is inspiring; if not for the sheer perseverance and determination of it all, then certainly for the dramatic results it has produced for the teams and players he has coached,” Chargers president of football operations John Spanos said. “I know it’s cliché, but I know Brandon quite literally cannot wait to get to work.”

Tom Brady takes Tampa Bay Buccaneers to conference championship in first season in NFC

The Buccaneers signed quarterback Tom Brady this offseason for moments like this: to go head-to-head with a New Orleans Saints team that has had an unrelenting grip on the NFC South, to get Tampa Bay back to the postseason for the first time in 13 years, and to become the first team in NFL history to host a hometown Super Bowl.

The Bucs are one step away from completing that trilogy.

In the second stop of a playoff odyssey that began with a wild-card game on the road — a first in Brady’s 21-year career — Tampa Bay defeated New Orleans 30–20 on Sunday night. The Saints had swept the Bucs in the regular season, outscoring them by 46 points in two games.

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Up next: Lambeau Field, against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game. It will be Brady’s 14th conference title game and the Bucs’ fourth, after most recently defeating the Philadelphia Eagles 27–10 on the road en route to winning Super Bowl XXXVII following the 2002 season.

Against the Saints, Brady completed 18 of 33 passes for 199 yards, two touchdowns through the air, one on the ground and no interceptions. He is now 3–5 against Saints quarterback Drew Brees, although defense and the ground game told the story. The Saints frequently lined up with deep safeties, focusing on preventing big plays downfield.

Bucs running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones combined for 169 yards from scrimmage. Saints receiver Michael Thomas was held without a catch, and the Bucs got three takeaways that led to touchdowns.

Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting picked off Brees on a pass intended for Thomas in the second quarter, returning it 36 yards to the New Orleans 3-yard line. Then, Bucs receiver Mike Evans punctuated the possession with a 3-yard touchdown — his first catch of the season against Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

Then in the third quarter, Bucs rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. dislodged the ball from the hands of Saints tight end Jared Cook, with Bucs inside linebacker Devin White scooping it up and returning it 18 yards. Fournette then caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from Brady on a slant route.

In the fourth quarter, White picked off Brees on a pass intended for New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara, with Brady eventually running it in for a 1-yard score. Later, Bucs safety Mike Edwards picked off a pass from Brees that was tipped by Bucs linebacker Lavonte David.

While Sunday marked Brady’s 14th win in a divisional playoff game, it was just his second divisional win on the road, in his first season in the NFC.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur noted how much his players fed off having fans in their stadium Saturday against the Los Angeles Rams, in a game in which MVP favorite Aaron Rodgers gave a performance for the ages against the league’s №1 defense.

Wide receiver Davante Adams even proclaimed, “Nobody can stop us.”

The Bucs did, however, in Week 6, stunning the Packers 38–10 at home, sacking Rodgers four times, intercepting him twice and holding the Packers to a season-low one touchdown.

That same Packers team scored on each of its first five possessions Saturday, in Rodgers’ eighth playoff game in which he was responsible for at least three touchdowns, passing Brett Favre for third most in NFL history.

The Bucs achieved some history of their own Sunday, becoming the ninth team in NFL history and the first since the New York Giants in 2007 to defeat an opponent in the playoffs after being swept by it in the regular season.

Brady is a career 9–4 in league championship games, but he’s 3–3 in those games on the road. Brady is also 4–2 all-time against the Packers and 1–1 at Lambeau, while Rodgers has lost three straight conference championships.

Sources: Atlanta Falcons to hire New Orleans Saints’ Terry Fontenot as general manager

The Atlanta Falcons are expected to hire Terry Fontenot as their new general manager, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter, poaching him away from the rival New Orleans Saints to help reshape the organization along with newly hired head coach Arthur Smith.

The two sides still need to work out a deal, but Fontenot is expected to be Atlanta’s next general manager, Schefter reports.

Fontenot, 40, also interviewed for GM jobs with the Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars. He now becomes the fourth Black general manager in the NFL after the Lions hired Brad Holmes in this current job cycle.

Fontenot replaces former Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff, who was fired along with coach Dan Quinn in October. Fontenot has not previously worked with Smith. But he has ample experience with a winning franchise — and he has closely studied the Falcons’ organization for nearly two decades in New Orleans’ pro personnel department.

The Saints will benefit from a new rule passed by NFL owners in November that will compensate teams for grooming minority head coaches and GMs. According to the rule, any team that loses a minority head coach or executive who goes on to land a head-coaching or GM job will receive two compensatory third-round draft picks in consecutive years.

Fontenot has spent his entire 18-year career with the Saints, most recently as a vice president and assistant GM in charge of pro personnel. A native of Lake Charles, Louisiana, Fontenot played safety at New Orleans’ Tulane University before starting his career with the Saints as a marketing intern in 2003.

He didn’t plan on entering a scouting career until Saints GM Mickey Loomis noticed the work he was doing and offered him a job as a scouting intern.

The Saints have done an excellent job of adding key pieces in free agency during their current run of four straight NFC South titles — including All-Pro linebacker Demario Davis, receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Jared Cook. But the pro personnel department has also done a great job of unearthing hidden gems over the years, such as receiver Willie Snead and former CFL cornerback Delvin Breaux.

Fontenot has also done plenty of work on the college scouting side during the pre-draft process, as the Saints have always described their front office as a collective effort between GM Mickey Loomis, coach Sean Payton, VPs Fontenot, Jeff Ireland and Khai Harley and others.

Fontenot previously worked under Ryan Pace in New Orleans before Pace was hired as the Chicago Bears’ GM in 2015.

Fontenot’s first GM interview came last year with the New York Jets. He said last summer that as he prepared for that interview he realized, “Man, I’ve been preparing for this for 18 years.”

“Because in this organization — and I don’t think it’s like that everywhere — you’re communicating every day with [Loomis, Payton, Harley, Ireland and others],” Fontenot said. “I was comfortable with my voice when I was a pro scout. I was comfortable with my voice, honestly, when I was a scouting assistant. That’s how the culture is here.”

Sources: Detroit Lions expected to hire New Orleans Saints assistant head coach Dan Campbell

Now that the New Orleans Saints have been eliminated from the NFL postseason, the Detroit Lions are expected to hire Saints assistant head coach/tight ends coach Dan Campbell as their next head coach, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

The two sides still need to work out a deal, but it is not considered an obstacle, and Campbell is the head coach the Lions plan to hire, sources told Schefter.

Campbell would replace Matt Patricia, who was fired in November after less than three seasons with the franchise and a 13–29–1 record, as the club tries to reset from finishing last in the NFC North the past three years.

The 44-year-old Campbell, who has never been a coordinator in the NFL, is viewed as a motivator and someone who can bring a team together instead of an X’s-and-O’s guru. The Lions had been searching for people they considered unifiers throughout their search as they identified qualities they deemed important to building a winner out of a franchise that has one playoff win in the Super Bowl era and claimed its last division title in 1993.

“I think leadership and somebody that can work with the general manager,” team president Rod Wood said earlier this month. “And somebody that has had experience either as a head coach or you can project that experience as a coordinator into being a head coach, and really diving into those types of questions.

“Not that we didn’t do that in the search for Matt, but I think trying to do it differently, hopefully we’ll find the right people.”

Campbell doesn’t have much experience as a head coach, but the Lions clearly saw enough to pair him with recently hired general manager Brad Holmes. Without experience calling plays on either side of the ball, whom Campbell brings in as coordinators will be paramount to his success.

After staffing, among the first decisions he and Holmes are going to have to make is on the futures of star wide receiver Kenny Golladay, who is slated to be a free agent in March, and quarterback Matthew Stafford, whose contract goes through the 2022 season. Campbell also might have to make a decision on one former teammate, long-snapper Don Muhlbach, who before Campbell’s hire had been the team’s last connection to the winless 2008 club and is Detroit’s second-longest-tenured player in team history, behind kicker Jason Hanson.

Campbell played 10 seasons in the NFL, including the final three years of his career for the Lions.

After his playing career ended following a season on injured reserve with the Saints, Campbell began his coaching career with the Miami Dolphins as a coaching intern in 2010 before working his way up to tight ends coach and then, after Joe Philbin was fired by Miami in 2015, interim coach for the final 12 games of that season.

Campbell went 5–7 with the Dolphins but did not earn the full-time job and instead landed with the Saints, where he spent the past five seasons under coach Sean Payton. Learning under Payton in case he got another full-time opportunity was part of the reason Campbell went to New Orleans.

“I would tell you that was №2 on the list,” Campbell told ESPN’s Mike Triplett in 2018. “№1 was I know Sean and I have a history with Sean. So I just knew about him as a person and as a coach. So to be reunited with him meant the world.”

The Lions interviewed at least six candidates for the job: new Atlanta Falcons coach Arthur Smith, new New York Jets coach Robert Saleh, former Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Lions interim head coach Darrell Bevell and Campbell. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler and Dan Graziano reported that the Lions also inquired with Iowa State coach Matt Campbell.

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