The Los Angeles Rams are hoping history repeats itself.
Less than a year after Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers became the first team in NFL history to win the Super Bowl on their home soil, the Rams seek a similar destiny in 2022.
On an overcast and muggy winter day, the Rams held on to defeat the aforementioned Buccaneers 30-27 in the NFC divisional round, denying them the opportunity to defend their title, while simultaneously advancing to the NFC Championship game next week.
The Rams victory seemed inevitable for most of the game, but nearly never came to fruition following a furious fourth quarter comeback by Brady and the Bucs. Leading 27-3, Tampa Bay scored 24 unanswered points to tie the game with less than a minute left on the clock. Thanks to the NFL’s receiving triple-crown winner Cooper Kupp, Los Angles was able to march down the field and kick the game-winning field goal as time expired.
Los Angeles defeated Tampa Bay for the second time this season, sending Brady and the Bucs home for what could be the final game of the seven-time champion’s storied NFL career.
“I haven’t put a lot of thought into it. I’ll just take it day by day and see where we’re at,” said Brady when asked if he was going to retire. “Truthfully guys, I’m thinking about this game and I’m not thinking about the future right now.”
As plenty of questions surrounded Brady’s future after the game, there were plenty of questions about Rams’ quarterback Matthew Stafford before the postseason even began. Despite being ranked alongside Brady statistically among the greatest quarterbacks of his generation, Stafford had yet to win a playoff game in his 13-year NFL career.
Despite exorcising some of those demons in the Rams 34-11 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Wild Card Game, Stafford doubters did not believe he could vanquish the greatest quarterback of all time in Brady.
But Stafford prevailed in the highly anticipated quarterback duel of aging veterans. The 33-year-old threw for 366 yards and two touchdowns, even rushing for a score in his battle with Brady.
The 44-year-old Brady threw for 329 and a touchdown in the loss.
The Rams will now host the No. 6 seed San Francisco 49ers for the third time this season at SoFi Stadium on Sunday. The rival 49ers have defeated the Rams six consecutive times, with their last win coming on Dec. 30, 2018.
“It’s a big challenge,” said Stafford on facing the Niners. “Hopefully it’s one of those games where it’s heavy blue and yellow and we have a nice loud crowd that makes it tough on them. I’m excited for the opportunity.”
The Rams jumped out to an early 10-point lead after Stafford found backup tight end Kendall Blanton on the play-action, for a a seven-yard pass for the game’s first score.
Los Angeles then broke the game open at the start of the second quarter when Stafford found Cooper Kupp wide open for a 70-yard touchdown pass that put the Rams ahead 17-3.
“Coach got us in a great call. We got the coverage that we wanted,” said Kupp of the touchdown. “We got a two-on-one on the front side safety. Matthew [Stafford] did a good job hanging in there, giving me an opportunity for the run after the catch. I felt like my best opportunity to was to cut back there and I was able to get in the end zone. My legs felt a little heavy on that one though.”
The Rams kept the Bucs out of the end zone in the first half, but missed an opportunity to go up 27-3 when Cam Akers fumbled the ball on the one-yard line, killing all momentum heading into the locker room.
But the Rams got the ball back to start the second half, and marched down the field, capping off a six-play, 28-yard drive with a QB sneak for the score and a 27-3 lead.
The lead was eerily reminiscent of Super Bowl LI, when the Atlanta Falcons led Brady and the New England Patriots 28-3. Brady rallied for the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history and nearly did it again on Sunday.
Leading 27-6, Kupp fumbled and gave Brady and the Bucs the ball back in their own territory midway through the third quarter.
“It’s obviously tough,” Kupp said of the fumble. “You obviously try and to limit them as much as you can and to be in that moment, obviously you feel like you let your team down and put the defense out there in a terrible spot, you never want to do that. Literally, before that drive, we were preaching ‘ball security, ball security’ and that’s something I can’t do.”
Seven plays later, Leonard Fournette, who was activated off the IR before the game, ran the ball into the end zone and suddenly Brady and the Bucs were down just 27-13.
“I came in at halftime and told them, ‘We’ve been down before,'” said Fournette of the 27-3 deficit. “You have to take whatever you want, especially in this game. Nothing is given.”
The fourth quarter was packed with plenty of action as both teams fumbled on back-to-back plays. First it was Brady who fumbled after a strip sack by Von Miller.
Then a botched snap flew over the head of Stafford and was recovered by the Bucs.
The Rams became the first team in NFL history to lose four fumbles in a game they were leading by 20 or more points, yet still managed to win the game. It was also the first time a team committed four turnovers and still was able to defeat a Tom Brady-led team.
“Having four turnovers is absolutely something we have to clean up,” said Rams’ head coach Sean McVay. “But my favorite part is guys stayed together. Nobody flinched, nobody blinked.”
Brady showed why he’s the G.O.A.T when he delivered a dime to Mike Evans down the sidelines for a 55-yard touchdown pass that cut the game to 27-20 with just over three minutes left in the contest.
“After I hit Mike [Evans] on that deep one that was a pretty good feeling,” said Brady of the touchdown. “We were right in it at that point.”
The Bucs completed the comeback after Akers second fumble of the game gave Tampa Bay the ball back in their own territory. Fournette ran to the corner of the end zone to tie the game at 27-27. The Bucs ran off 24 unanswered points in the second half.
“I just tried to make a play to help the team,” said Fournette of the game-tying touchdown. “This whole week has been a very difficult week for me. Two days prior to the game my cousin got killed. I was just trying to keep everything together. I’m just happy I had a chance to go out there and fight with those guys.”
With just 40 seconds left in the game, the Bucs were preparing to go to overtime, but the Rams would have the last word. Stafford completed two deep passes to Kupp to get them into field goal range. That’s when Pro Bowl kicker Matt Gay, who was cut by the Bucs in 2019, drilled the game-winner as time expired.
The 2021 campaign hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for the Rams. After a 7-1 start to the season, the Rams acquired Miller and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. for the second half of the season. Instead, they dropped three consecutive games to the Titans, Niners, and Packers, appearing too look more like a pretender than a contender. But then they ran off five consecutive victories to right the ship down the stretch.
Now, after two straight wins against worthy opponents in the postseason, the Rams have their foot on the gas and could become the second straight team to play a Super Bowl on their home field with Super Bowl LVI scheduled for February 13 at SoFi Stadium.