Tom Brady stayed on course for a seventh Super Bowl success as his Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints 30-20 in a hard-fought play-off game.
In a battle of two of the NFL’s best ever quarterbacks, Brady threw two touchdown passes and scored one himself, with Brees recording one touchdown pass as the lead swung one way and then the other.
Brady’s two touchdown passes were finished off by Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette, while Tre’quan Smith scored twice for the Saints, once from a Brees pass and once from former Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston for a 56-yard effort.
The decisive moment came in the fourth quarter when Brady bundled over from close range to set up an NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers on 24 January.
The AFC Championship match will be between reigning Super Bowl champions the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills after the Chiefs gained a tense 22-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns.
However, the Chiefs had to survive a huge scare – and a concussion to quarterback Patrick Mahomes – to see off the Browns.
A final goodbye for Brees?
Brady, 43, won a record six Super Bowls in a 19-year stint with the New England Patriots before leaving at the end of last season and moving to the Buccaneers.
He then guided his new team into the play-offs for the first time since 2007 and they are still on course to play in this year’s Super Bowl, which will take place at their home Raymond James Stadium in February.
“The defence was the key to the game,” said Brady. “We got the turnovers we needed and it ended being a great win for us.
“We’ve worked hard to get to this point and we have to beat a great team [the Packers] and we will have to do well to beat them.”
While Brady is now looking forward to his 14th conference match, this may have been the last appearance in the career of 42-year-old Brees, who holds the record for most career passing yards in NFL history as well as the most career pass completions.
Brees was the Most Valuable Player in the 2009 Super Bowl – the Saints’ only triumph in their history – but will be frustrated at the loss against the Buccaneers after leading 6-0, 13-10 and 20-13, as his four turnovers proved costly.
As the teams walked off the field, Brees was spotted waving to the fans, fuelling speculation that this could be the end of an incredible career that will surely see him enter the Hall of Fame.
Chiefs hold on after Mahomes suffers concussion
In the earlier game on Sunday, the Chiefs had to play for most of the second half with 35-year-old back-up quarterback Chad Henne, who was featuring for only the fourth time this season and in only his 11th appearance in seven years.
Last season’s champions had led 19-3 at half-time after Mahomes ran in a one-yard touchdown and then found Travis Kelce, who added a 20-yard score for the hosts.
But touchdowns from the Browns’ Jarvis Landry and Kareem Hunt set up a thrilling finale with Henne guiding the Chiefs into a championship game with the Buffalo Bills on 24 January.
Mahomes had been in top form early on, but was noticeably struggling with a toe injury in the second quarter and then in the third he was tackled by the Browns’ Mack Wilson, with Mahomes’ helmet hitting the ground.
When he tried to get to his feet, his legs were unsteady and he had to be helped by his team-mates before he was then ruled out for the rest of the game through the concussion protocols.
The Chiefs will now be hoping he is fit enough to play in the AFC Championship game, when they have home advantage against the Bills, who defeated the Baltimore Ravens 17-3.
From 0-16 to brink of Championship game
For the Browns, it has been a remarkable turnaround in the past few years as in 2016 they only won once all season and then did even worse in 2017 with a record of 0-16.
Their 48-37 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers last week was their first post-season victory since 1 January 1995, and they were one score away from causing a shock against the Chiefs.
The Browns, whose team included Scottish punter Jamie Gillan, had a great chance to score at the end of the first half but Rashard Higgins, when diving for the line, was tackled by the Chiefs’ Daniel Sorensen and fumbled the ball, losing possession.
However, Landry’s four-yard touchdown gave the visitors some hope and Mahomes’ enforced absence set up a potential upset.
Hunt bundled his way through the middle of the Chiefs defence to make it a five-point game.
In a thrilling finish, Henne, who threw one interception, but completed six of eight passes, came up with two vital plays in the last two minutes.
Firstly, when on third and 14 and with no pass on, he sprinted and dived to get it to fourth and inches and then fired a short pass for Tyreek Hill to secure the first down, which sealed the victory.