Tom Brady nearly pulled off another incredible comeback
Things didn’t remotely go as planned for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC divisional round, losing 30-27 to the Los Angeles Rams at Raymond James Stadium. The latter began running away with the game over the course of the first half, but suffered mistake after mistake and, as such, allowed Tom Brady to nearly go full “Tom Brady” in the fourth quarter. This game had it all — from critical takeaways and highlight touchdowns that wildly swung momentum back and forth like a crazed pendulum to a clash between a bloody-lipped Brady and lead official Shawn Hochuli.
Credit the Buccaneers for clawing back from a 24-point deficit to nearly stun the Rams and, in the process, grant Brady another one of the biggest postseason comebacks in NFL history. But the seven-time Super Bowl winner and reigning Super Bowl MVP was ultimately outdueled on his own field by Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp, among others, in what was easily one of the best playoff games you’ve ever witnessed, and that’s not an exaggeration.
Why the Rams won
The name of the game is to survive and advance, and the Rams quite literally did exactly that. After jumping all over the Bucs with a 27-3 lead, they began to implode on cosmic levels — forcing themselves into a gut check time and again until the clock hit all zeroes. They made Brady uncomfortable early and often, landing both an interception and a sack-fumble, while also forcing him into 24 incompletions and a passer rating of 72.2 that was below 60.0 for most of the contest.
They couldn’t shut him down completely, though, allowing Brady to come alive around the same time Stafford and the offense began to concoct a mix of plays that were either bang or bust with no in-between. Another field goal by the Rams in the second quarter answered the miss by Ryan Succop, and Brady’s reply to that was an interception with under two minutes to Nick Scott, fueling the Buccaneers’ tailspin that continued ahead of halftime. But a forced fumble and recovery by Antoine Winfield Jr. prevented an early kill shot from the Rams to keep the Bucs alive with only two quarters left to stave off the upset.
Remember what I said about gut checks, though, because that error by the Rams would turn out to not matter whatsoever, after a 33-yard punt return by Los Angeles set up a highlight catch by Odell Beckham Jr., rewarded by Stafford with a 1-yard touchdown sneak to extend the lead to 24 points in the third quarter. But, again, the Rams couldn’t get out of their own way as the game wore on, and constantly traded highlights with the Bucs to the degree they found themselves in a tie game and facing overtime if they couldn’t finally nail the coffin closed.
And so they did, after seeing Leonard Fournette’s game-tying touchdown and not hanging their heads, instead punishing defensive coordinator Todd Bowles for what would become the final decision of his regular season — by way of the bomb from Stafford to Kupp to set up the game-winning boot from Matt Gay. Doing so allows the Rams to avoid making the wrong type of NFL history, and proves Stafford can get the job done in the postseason after he helped dismantle the Arizona Cardinals one week prior.
Why the Buccaneers lost
It was a carousel of bad from the start for the Bucs. In the absence of starting tackle Tristan Wirfs, Rams head coach Sean McVay deployed perennial All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald to the edge to take advantage of that matchup, and it left Brady unsettled for the entirety of the first quarter — while Stafford and Co. instead found an early groove to take a 10-point lead on the road.
The tide could’ve turned quickly if the Buccaneers’ defense was able to reel in a potential red-zone interception by Stafford, but failed to do so and it led to the first points of the game by way of a 26-yard field goal from Gay, and eventually the Rams landing two haymakers thereafter. The Bucs were able to squeeze in a field goal after a 7-yard touchdown catch by tight end Kendall Blanton — fueled largely by a taunting penalty against Ndamukong Suh — but that was made inconsequential when Tampa Bay’s defense decided to leave Kupp wide open.
One catch later, the league’s leading receiver landed a 70-yard haymaker directly on the jaw of the Buccaneers, his touchdown making it a 14-point lead for the Rams early in the second quarter. Things didn’t get any easier for Tampa Bay from there, when a promising drive was stalled by a taunting penalty against Brady, who was seen eviscerating Hochuli after a hit from Von Miller that left his lip bloody, before Succop pushed a 48-yard attempt wide right (an ominous sign that just enough would go wrong for the Rams to escape with a win).
It was a wild-and-crazy affair from there, with the Buccaneers having a list of opportunities often created by what was mostly a stellar defensive effort — buying time for Brady to finally get the offense going (which he eventually did) — but football giveth and football taketh away, as evidenced in that very same defense sending an all-out blitz at Stafford and allowing Kupp to get behind them for a game-deciding 44-yard reception. After the Rams did everything they could to win the game, they then did everything they could to lose it, but the Buccaneers needed one more big play than they could muster.
It was a do-or-die moment for the Bucs, on fourth-and-1 with their season on the line. Playoff Lenny was called, and he answered, with a touchdown to tie the game and force the Rams to find some magic one more time. They did, but it was at this moment that the Rams realized just how close they truly were to being pushed into the grave they’d spent the entire afternoon digging for the Bucs.
Play of the Game
Kupp called game.
Stafford craves the smoke
“Bucs tried to bring everybody on that last play — bad recipe.” — Matthew Stafford, via PFF
The Rams advance to the NFC Championship Game to face the San Francisco 49ers for the third time this season, with a chance to punch their ticket to Super Bowl LVI on their own field at SoFi Stadium.