JPP, Barrett pace stingy Buccaneers defense against Rodgers

Full Screen
1 / 3

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Shaquil Barrett (58) celebrates with teammate Jason Pierre-Paul after sacking Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during the second half of the NFC championship NFL football game in Green Bay, Wis., Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021.(AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)

Tom Brady's signing with the Buccaneers as a free agent last winter spawned hope that brighter days were ahead for a once-downtrodden franchise.

To deliver on that hope, Brady needed some relentless play from Tampa Bay's defense.

“We played like our life depended on it,” Jason Pierre-Paul said Sunday after the Bucs forced two more turnovers and sacked Aaron Rodgers five times to key a 31-26 victory that sends Brady to an unprecedented 10th Super Bowl. And Tampa Bay to its first since the 2002 season.

Keeping the core of an improved defense together was critical, too, in going from 7-9 last season to making the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. And then getting to back to the NFL title game for the first time since those 2002 Bucs won it all.

In the days after luring Brady from New England, Bucs general manager Jason Licht placed the franchise tag on linebacker Shaquil Barrett and re-signed Pierre-Paul and tackle Ndamukong Suh — moves coach Bruce Arians felt were also necessary to give the team a chance to be special this season.

Barrett had three sacks and Pierre-Paul had two Sunday, when Tampa Bay showed the success it had against Rodgers during a 38-10 rout of the Packers in the regular season was no fluke. In the earlier game, the Bucs sacked the Green Bay star four times and intercepted him twice, returning one for a touchdown and the other to the Packers 2.

“Shaq played great. I played great,” Pierre-Paul said. “We both knew we had to have big games to make it work.”

A week after forcing four turnovers in Tampa Bay’s divisional round victory over Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, Sean Murphy-Bunting’s interception set up a touchdown just before halftime. Devin White scooped up a fumble to set up another TD that put the Bucs up 28-10 in the third quarter.