Bucs will enter playoffs with losing record after falling to Falcons

ATLANTA — He wasn’t permitted to stick around long enough to prevent Sunday’s 30-17 loss to the Falcons, getting the hook just shy of five minutes remaining in the second quarter.

But at age 45, Tom Brady did drag his team across the regular-season goal line and into the playoffs, where Tampa Bay hosts Dallas next weekend in an NFC wild-card game.

The NFL playoff format gives a boost to dark horses, underdogs and any other creature still stirring in the postseason.

At 8-9, the Bucs become one of only four teams to reach the playoffs with a losing record in a nonstrike season. Since becoming a starter in 2001, none of Brady’s previous teams had sunk below .500 this late in the year.

But if Brady is worried about that, he wasn’t letting it pierce his California cool following Sunday’s game.

He stepped to a podium in the interview room of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, adjusted his black TB12 cap, zipped up his tan jacket and gave the wry smile of someone who knows the ending hasn’t been written yet.

“I was part of teams that were really good (in the regular season) and didn’t make it very far (in the playoffs),” Brady said. “I’ve been with teams that were fighting really hard and made it a long way. So everything will be determined from what we do now going forward. Hopefully, we’ve learned a lot from what’s happened over the course of the season, and now we’ve just got to put our best foot out there — offensively, defensively, special teams.

“You can only win one game a week. The team that wins is the team that plays the best that day, not the team that had the best record or the home field. The team that plays the best that day is the team that advances.”

Brady played five series, going 13 of 17 passing for 84 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph. Rudolph later left the game with a knee injury.

Brady was on the bench just before linebacker Devin White pounced on a fumble by Falcons rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder. The play set up quarterback Blaine Gabbert’s 3-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Russell Gage to give the Bucs a 17-10 lead late in the first half.

With Brady gone and most of the starters out on defense, the Falcons scored 20 unanswered points in the second half, and that was that.

The Bucs also were running out of offensive linemen. Tackle Donovan Smith was inactive, and Tristan Wirfs didn’t play. When center Robert Hainsey left the game with a pulled hamstring, the Bucs had to move guard Nick Leverett to center.

Brady took a big hit from Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who went unblocked on the play.

“I was trying to play as long as I could,” Brady said. “I really was. But we just had so many injuries and there were so many people going in and out. It’s tough.”

The Bucs have some momentum on offense heading into the playoffs. Brady passed for 432 yards and three touchdowns in a 30-24 win over the Panthers last weekend to clinch the NFC South title. On Sunday, they continued that rhythm, scoring a touchdown on their first possession for only the third time this season.

“Everybody understands what we were doing coming in here for this ballgame,” coach Todd Bowles said. “So the momentum we had, it’s a clean-slate season. The momentum was to keep playing. I think if you rest them and don’t play them at all, I think you lose the momentum. But we still have that competitiveness and eagerness to go once the game starts. I thought we started fast on both sides of the football, and that was important.”

Bowles, however, was disappointed in his young players on defense, who allowed Ridder (19-of-30) to escape the pocket and pass for 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Bucs also gave up 174 rushing yards.

“We should’ve been able to preserve the lead and try to win the ballgame,” Bowles said. “We got beat on fundamental stuff with some of the younger guys, and we’ve got to go back to the drawing board with those guys.”

But the Bucs are playoff tested. Many of their players won Super Bowl 55 and last year made it to the NFC division game before losing to the Rams. They’re 5-1 in the playoffs over the past two years.

“We like being doubted, counted out,” White said. “Because that don’t matter. All that matters is the people in the room.”

The biggest thing the Bucs have going for them is Brady, who arguably had the most challenging season of his career on and off the field. He still managed to carve out more history, breaking his NFL season completion record with 490 this season.

The postseason has always belonged to Brady, no matter the obstacles.

Before leaving Sunday, Brady was asked what it felt like to lead a team to the playoffs at age 45.

“It’s pretty good at 25, too,” said Brady, smiling. “Twenty-five, 35, 45, it’s pretty good to be in the playoffs.”

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLSTROUD.

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