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Buccaneers vs. Rams recap: Title defense ends with heartbreaking 30-27 loss

Tampa Bay erased a 27-3 deficit in the second half to tie the game at 27 with 42 seconds to go, only for the Rams to kick a game-winning field goal as time expired.

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Los Angeles Rams v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

After cruising to a 31-15 win over the Eagles in the NFC Wild Card Round last weekend, the Buccaneers set themselves up for a tougher contest in the NFC Divisional Round, with the Rams coming to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

If Tampa Bay’s road to a Super Bowl repeat was to continue beyond Sunday evening, it would have to figure out a Los Angeles team that has proven to present some matchup problems over the last two years. In 2020, the Rams came to Tampa and beat the Bucs 27-24 on Monday Night Football. This year, in Week 3, the Rams again emerged victorious when the two teams met in Los Angeles, this time winning by a score of 34-24. So, the Bucs were certainly up against it in the second round—much like they were when they went to New Orleans for the NFC Divisional Round last January.

One of the biggest keys to the latest meeting between these old playoff foes was the matchup between Rams head coach/offensive play caller Sean McVay and Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Coming into the game, McVay had gotten the better of Bowles’ defenses in the past. Back in September, the Rams put up 34 points and 407 yards up on the Bucs. In 2020 , Los Angeles posted 27 points and 413 yards in its win at Raymond James Stadium. Even when the Bucs beat the Rams in 2019, the Tampa Bay defense allowed 34 points and 518 yards in a 55-40 win.

So, could Bowles figure out McVay and the Rams’ offense? Would the Bucs have an answer for Cooper Kupp? Could Tampa Bay’s banged-up offensive line—missing Tristan Wirfs and featuring two not-at-100% players in Ryan Jensen and Josh Wells—handle Los Angeles’ formidable pass rush? The defending Super Bowl champions had a lot of questions to answer if they were going to keep their season alive.

The good news for both the Bucs and the Rams is that, with the 49ers’ 13-10 win over the Packers in Green Bay on Saturday night, the winner of Sunday’s game would have the opportunity to host the NFC Championship Game next week. Tampa Bay came into play on Sunday afternoon as three-point favorites, with ESPN FPI’s matchup predictor curiously giving Bruce Arians and co. a 65.8% chance to win.

Things went about as poorly as possible for the Bucs in the first half and well into the second half, with the Rams holding a 27-3 lead late in the third quarter. Tampa Bay managed to mount an improbable comeback, getting within 27-20 at the 3:20 mark before tying the game with 42 seconds to go, but two big plays from the Rams in the final minute set former Buc Matt Gay up for a game-winning 30-yard field goal. So, with a 30-27 loss, Tampa Bay’s season came to a bitter end.

Game Recap

The Rams won the pregame coin toss and elected to defer, which meant Tom Brady and the Buccaneer offense would get a chance to start fast and put some points on the board early. Former Buc Matt Gay sent the opening kickoff just short of the goal line and Jaelon Darden’s return only got to the 20, so that’s where the first offensive series would begin for Tampa Bay.

Leonard Fournette got his return off to a strong start, running for 11 and 10 yards on his first two carries to pick up two quick first downs. He got two more yards on his next carry, bringing up the first second down of the drive. Scotty Miller couldn’t haul in a Brady pass near the sideline on second down, though, setting up a difficult 3rd & 8 near midfield. Rob Gronkowski then failed to haul in Brady’s third-down pass, which brought the punt team out. Bradley Pinion’s kick disappointingly rolled into the end zone for a touchback, meaning the Rams would set up shop at their own 20 to start their first offensive possession.

Matthew Stafford hit Odell Beckham Jr. for a six-yard gain to start the Los Angeles drive, then picked up the visitors’ first first down of the day with a nine-yard dumpoff to Cam Akers. On the next play, he found a wide-open Cooper Kupp streaking across the field for a gain of 17. But after getting across midfield, the Rams went backward thanks to a first-down holding penalty on center Brian Allen. Facing a 1st & 20 didn’t matter, though, as Stafford and Beckham connected for a gain of 21 on the very next play. That preceded a 29-yard pass to a wide-open Tyler Higbee, setting up a 1st & Goal at the 9. Akers got one yard on 1st & Goal before an incompletion set up a huge third down. The Rams questionably targeted Carlton Davis on 3rd & Goal from the 8, and that resulted in an incompletion. But the NFC West champions got the game’s first points, with Matt Gay connecting on a 26-yard field goal to establish a 3-0 lead with 8:01 to go in the opening quarter.

After a touchback on the ensuing kickoff, Tampa Bay’s offense went back to work from its own 25. Fournette got nothing on first down and Brady missed Gronkowski on the next play, setting up a 3rd & 9 immediately for the Buccaneer offense. The unit’s fortunes didn’t turn from there, as Brady was hit as he threw and the pass fell incomplete, bringing the punt team back onto the field. Grant Stuard made a good special teams tackle down the field, but the Rams took over from their 29 already leading 3-0 after what was an easy drive down the field on Tampa Bay’s defense.

A nine-yard pass from Stafford to Beckham and a pass interference call on Jamel Dean quickly got the ball across the 50 for Los Angeles, then a Higbee catch followed by an Akers run moved the chains gain. Ndamukong Suh got to Stafford and forced an incompletion on the next play, but he was called for taunting after the play, giving the Rams another free 15 yards. A nine-yard run and a sneak by Stafford then set Los Angeles up with another 1st & Goal, this time from the 7. And this time, the visitors capitalized, with Stafford rolling out and finding Kendall Blanton for a touchdown. With Gay’s PAT, the Rams had a 10-0 lead with 3:28 to play in the first quarter.

Going from the 25 to start drive No. 3, the Bucs finally got the ball moving in just two plays. First, it was Brady completing a pass to Fournette, who worked his way through the defense for a gain of 13. Then, Brady escaped the pocket and hit Gronkowski for a 29-yard gain to the Rams’ 33-yard line. A one-yard run by Fournette and a five-yard catch by Miller set up a 3rd & 4 at the 27, but an incomplete pass intended for Cameron Brate brought the field goal team out after a sudden end to a promising drive. However, Ryan Succop did drill a 45-yard field goal, getting the Bucs back within a touchdown at 10-3 with 32 seconds left in the first quarter.

Tampa Bay’s kickoff unit didn’t help its defense, as Pinion sent the ensuing kickoff out of bounds. That meant a first down for the Rams at their own 40. Vita Vea stuffed Cam Akers at the line of scrimmage for no gain to start the drive, which brought us to the end of the first quarter with Los Angeles leading 10-3.

Vea opened the second quarter by sacking Stafford for a loss of 10, but that didn’t matter. On 3rd & 20, Stafford found a wide-open Kupp for a 70-yard touchdown. With the PAT, the Rams took a 17-3 lead.

Lavonte David was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the touchdown for taking his helmet off and slamming it to the ground, resulting in a 15-yard penalty on the kickoff. That worked to the Rams’ advantage, as their kick coverage team was able to pin the Bucs at their own 14-yard line. Tampa Bay’s nightmare start only continued from there, with Fournette getting just three yards on first down before a bad drop by Mike Evans brought up 3rd & 7 from the 17. Brady then threw short of Evans on third down, bringing Pinion and the punt team back out for the third time. After the kick, the Rams would get a chance to really put the game away early.

A 21-yard return on the punt gave Los Angeles excellent field position, as it began from its own 49. Rakeem Nunez-Roches dropped Akers for a loss of three to begin the drive, then Stafford threw behind Higbee on second down to bring up a crucial 3rd & 13. Tampa Bay’s defense then got off the field on third down, with Stafford misfiring on a pass intended for Beckham. The Rams nearly had the Bucs pinned at their own 1-yard line on the punt, but the gunner couldn’t quite keep the ball out of the end zone.

Going from the 20, Brady and the Buccaneer offense needed some kind of response, already down 14 early in the second quarter. An incompletion on first down and a short three-yard pass to Tyler Johnson brought up a quick third down for the Bucs, but they kept things going as Brady found Evans for a gain of nine. A short four-yard gain on a screen to Evans and an incompletion then brought up another third down, but Brady once again converted it with a pass to Evans, who fought through tacklers for a gain of 21. Another seven-yard pass to Evans was then overshadowed by an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Brady, who was pleading with the officials after Von Miller hit him late and up high on the chin, drawing blood. The offense overcame the 15-yard penalty, though, with Brady lobbing a beauty of a pass to Fournette for a 20-yard gain to the 31.

The Bucs’ drive stalled from there, with a Tyler Johnson drop on second down proving costly. On 4th & 9 from the 30, the Bucs elected to kick, only for Succop to miss from 48 yards out. With nine minutes to go in the first half, it was still a 17-3 Rams lead.

Taking over at their 38, the Rams had another chance to add to what was already a two-touchdown lead. Akers got stopped for a gain of one on first down before catching a six-yard pass and a five-yarder to move the chains for a first down at the 50. After a two-yard run by Akers and a three-yard scramble up the middle by Stafford, Los Angeles faced yet another third down. After calling a timeout, Stafford once again converted, finding Higbee for six yards and a first down at the Tampa Bay 39. A four-yard catch by Kupp and a six-yard catch by Beckham then moved the chains again as the clock ticked under four minutes in the first half.

With a 1st & 10 from the Bucs’ 28, the Rams went backward. An incomplete pass and a four-yard tackle for loss by Lavonte David on a pass to Sony Michel gave Los Angeles a 3rd & 14. Stafford got 11 yards back on a pass to Kupp, setting Matt Gay up for a 40-yard field goal to extend the Rams’ lead to 20-3 with 2:19 left in the second quarter.

Starting at their 15-yard line after just a 15-yard kickoff return by Darden, the Bucs needed to get something going to close the 17-point gap before halftime. Instead, Aaron Donald got to Brady and sacked him for a loss of seven, bringing us to the two-minute warning.

After the two-minute warning, Brady looked deep for Gronkowski, only to get intercepted by Nick Scott. With that, the Rams took over at the 31, already leading by 17.

After the turnover, a seven-yard run by Akers, a seven-yard pass from Stafford to Higbee and an 11-yard pass to Van Jefferson set Los Angeles up with a 1st & Goal at the 6, 1:05 before halftime. It was then that Tampa Bay got a massive lifeline, as Antoine Winfield Jr. forced an Akers fumble near the goal line and recovered it himself. It took a replay review to reverse the initial call on the field, but the Bucs kept the deficit at 20-3 with 19 seconds to play before halftime.

With the ball at their own goal line, the Bucs elected to kill the clock and take a 17-point deficit into halftime. However, the Rams were set to receive the opening kickoff in the second half.

Bradley Pinion sent the opening kickoff of the second half into the end zone, setting the Rams up from their own 25. Jordan Whitehead came flying across from his safety position to stop Cam Akers’ first-down run for a gain of just two, but Matthew Stafford found Odell Beckham Jr. for a gain of 17 on the next play to get Los Angeles moving. Devin White dropped Akers for a loss of three on the next run, then a delay of game penalty backed the Rams up to 2nd & 18. But the Rams found success through the air yet again, with Cooper Kupp bringing in a 13-yard pass from Stafford to bring up a manageable 3rd & 5. White knocked Stafford’s pass away on third down, though, marking a key stop for the Buccaneer defense.

After the Los Angeles punt, Brady and the offense went to work from their own 5, needing to put together a drive to cut the deficit down. Tampa Bay went back to the ground to open its first drive of the half, with Leonard Fournette getting seven yards on first down and nothing on second down to bring up a quick 3rd & 3. Brady threw behind Tyler Johnson on third down and the second-year receiver couldn’t adjust, which meant another Pinion punt. A 33-yard return from Brandon Powell gave the Rams excellent field position, as they went from the Bucs’ 28-yard line.

Stafford hit Kendall Blanton for an 11-yard gain to start the next drive, then a four-yard pass to Kupp and a 10-yarder to Beckham gave the Rams a 1st & Goal at the 3. Three plays later, they had a 27-3 lead thanks to a one-yard touchdown sneak by Stafford. With 7:07 to go in the third quarter, there was essentially no road back for Tampa Bay.

Brady and Mike Evans linked up for a five-yard gain to open the next drive before O.J. Howard made a rare appearance, bringing in a seven-yard catch for a first down. A pass to Scotty Miller then lost two yards, but Brady avoided a sack on the next play and hit a wide-open Rob Gronkowski for 42 yards down to the Rams’ 23-yard line. An 11-yard pass to Evans two plays later got the Bucs inside the red zone, but they stalled there. An incompletion on first down and a run for a one-yard loss by Fournette on second down brought up 3rd & 11, then Brady threw incomplete. Down by three scores, Bruce Arians elected to... kick a field goal. Ryan Succop connected from 31 yards out to turn that three-score deficit into... a three-score deficit. With 3:02 left in the third quarter, the Rams held a 27-6 lead.

Pinion’s ensuing kickoff went out of bounds—his second time kicking it out of bounds on the day—giving the Rams a first down at their own 40. But Tampa Bay’s defense tried its best to give the offense another chance to bring them back within striking distance, as Jamel Dean forced a Kupp fumble and Sean Murphy-Bunting recovered, giving Tampa Bay a first down at the Los Angeles 30.

With excellent field position and a chance to get within two scores, the Buccaneer offense continued to sputter. An incompletion, a one-yard pass and another incompletion brought up 4th & 9, seeming to suck the air out of Raymond James Stadium. But on 4th & 9, Brady found Scotty Miller for a gain of 16, picking up a first down at the Rams’ 13.

Passes of three and nine yards to Tyler Johnson set the Bucs up with a 1st & Goal at the 1, and on the next play, Fournette made his way into the end zone. With Succop’s PAT, the Bucs were within 27-13 with 12 seconds to go in the third quarter.

Pinion sent the ensuing kickoff through the end zone for a touchback, bringing the Rams offense out to start their next possession at the 25-yard line. One run up the middle for no gain brought us to the end of the third quarter with the visitors leading 27-13, though the home crowd was hopped up and looking to give its team some extra juice to spark a comeback.

Stafford threw wild to open the fourth quarter, forcing a 3rd & 10. Pressure got to him again on the next play, forcing another incompletion and a punt. Suddenly, all of the momentum was with Tampa Bay, which trailed by 14 when it got the ball back at its own 30.

The momentum that the Bucs had gotten back vanished one play into their next drive. Von Miller beat Donovan Smith and got to Brady for a sack-fumble. With the recovery, it was a first down for the Rams at Tampa Bay’s 25.

As it turned out, the Rams didn’t want the momentum back on their side. Brian Allen snapped the ball while Stafford had his head turned and the Tampa Bay defense beat him to the recovery, with Jason Pierre-Paul getting there to recover the ball at the Los Angeles 45. Just like that, the Bucs had life again.

Brady hit Gronkowski for a 13-yard gain to start the ensuing possession, then found Fournette for a five-yard gain inside the 30. But Tampa Bay couldn’t keep it going from there, with Nick Scott making a great play to break up a pass intended for Gronkowski on second down before Leonard Floyd came up with a third-down sack. The Bucs were forced to go for it on 4th & 14 and Brady looked deep for Evans, but the ball fell incomplete as Evans took a shot to the head from Eric Weddle. The flag was thrown, but the officials ruled it a dead-ball foul, meaning the 15 yards was enforced after the change of possession.

After catching a break, the Los Angeles offense went to work on putting the game away. Akers got three yards on the ground, Jefferson got 15, then Akers got 11 more on the next two carries to take the clock under 10 minutes. Stafford then went play-action and found Jefferson, who shook off Murphy-Bunting and got 18 more yards. Rakeem Nunez-Roches responded by taking Akers down for a loss of three before Akers got two yards back to bring up 3rd & 11 as the clock ticked under seven and a half minutes. The Rams had to take a timeout at the 7:18 mark, but came back and ran the ball with Sony Michel after the break. Matt Gay then came on to make it a three-score game again, but his 47-yard field goal attempt fell short, so the Bucs hung on to a little bit of hope despite being down 14 with 6:31 to play.

Starting at their 37, the Bucs needed a touchdown drive. They got things going with a nine-yard pass to Fournette, then Evans made a six-yard catch for a first down at the Rams’ 48. Evans then drew a pass interference call, giving the Bucs another first down at the Los Angeles 32. An incomplete pass and a three-yard pass to Fournette brought up a 3rd & 7, but perhaps more pressing was that the clock was already under five minutes and the Bucs were still down two scores. It didn’t help that Fournette lost three yards on a third-down catch, bringing up 4th & 9. Brady couldn’t find an open receiver on fourth down and missed over the middle, essentially bringing an end to the game. With 4:26 to go, the visitors had a 27-13 lead.

The Rams only killed 30 seconds off the clock with their next drive, but the Bucs called all of their timeouts. Getting the ball back with just under four minutes to go, Tampa Bay had to get moving. A 19-yard pass to Miller and a three-yard pass to Fournette got the Bucs near midfield, then Brady unloaded a 55-yard touchdown pass to Evans. Suddenly, with the PAT, the Bucs were within 27-20 with 3:20 left.

After a short return on the ensuing kickoff, the Rams took over at their 20. The Bucs needed a stop, and they had no timeouts to spend, so it had to be quick. Akers got three yards to start the drive, then the Buccaneer defense came up with the game’s biggest play. Ndamukong Suh stripped the ball out of Akers’ hands and Lavonte David recovered, giving the ball back to Brady and the offense at the Rams’ 30 with 2:25 left.

Brady hit Fournette for a five-yard gain to start the possession, bringing us to the two-minute warning. On 2nd & 5 after the break, Fournette got four yards to bring up a 3rd & 1. He got a first down on the next play, bringing up 1st & 10 at the Rams’ 18. Evans looked to have Jalen Ramsey beat inside the 10-yard line on the next play, but he slipped and the pass fell incomplete with 1:15 to go. Pressure then got to Brady on the next play and he threw the ball into double coverage, but luckily it fell incomplete to bring up 3rd & 10. Brady then hit Cameron Brate for what looked like a first down, but the officials ruled him short of the sticks. Before the Bucs’ 4th & 1 try at the 9, the Rams called a timeout with 46 seconds to play.

After the timeout—and a review—the Bucs lined up for 4th & 1 with their season on the line. And on that play, Tampa Bay went to—who else?—Leonard Fournette. He found the edge—and then the end zone. With Succop’s PAT, the Bucs had officially come back from down 27-3 to tie the game at 27 with 42 seconds to go.

After a touchback on the ensuing kickoff, the Rams went to work from their own 25 with one timeout to work with, needing just a field goal. Stafford tried to escape and scramble on first down, only for Pierre-Paul to sack him for a loss of one. That forced Sean McVay to call his final timeout at the 35-second mark. On 2nd & 11, Stafford found Kupp for a gain of 20, plus he got out of bounds. He then hit him again on the next play for a gain of 44. That got the Rams set up for a 30-yard field goal, which Matt Gay drilled as time expired. Just 42 seconds after Raymond James Stadium was sent into a frenzy, Tampa Bay’s season was over.

Quick Notes & Stats

  • Sunday marked the first time in Tom Brady’s playoff career that he failed to complete a pass in his first two drives. It was his 47th career playoff game.
  • Los Angeles dominated the opening quarter, holding an advantage over Tampa Bay in first downs (9-4), total yards (122-72), yards per play (7.6-5.5) and time of possession (9:03-5:57). All of that translated to a 10-3 lead after 15 minutes of play.
  • Things didn’t get any better in the second quarter for Tampa Bay. By halftime, Los Angeles’ held even wider advantages in first downs (15-7), total yards (250-133), yards per play (6.8-4.4) and time of possession (18:47-11:13). The visitors took a 20-3 lead into the locker room.
  • Third down efficiency—or inefficiency in the Bucs’ case—was a huge story in the first half. The Rams converted on three of their six third-down chances, while the Bucs were just 2-of-7.
  • Tom Brady’s first half was extremely forgettable, as he threw for 112 yards and an interception on 10-of-22 passing.
  • The Bucs trailed by 14 with 3:30 left in the fourth quarter, only to score two touchdowns in the next 2:48 to tie the game at 27-27.
  • Tampa Bay’s defense forced four turnovers on the day, all of which came after the final minute of the first half.
  • As poor as his first half was, Brady finished the night with 329 yards and a touchdown—from 55 yards out—on 30-of-54 passing.
  • Mike Evans did absolutely everything he could for Tampa Bay, catching eight passes for 119 yards and a touchdown.
  • Leonard Fournette shined in his return, running for 51 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries while catching all nine of his targets for 56 yards.
  • Antoine Winfield Jr., Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jason Pierre-Paul and Lavonte David all recovered fumbles for the Tampa Bay defense.
  • Brady was under pressure all day, getting sacked three times and hit six times. The numbers don’t even tell the full story of how poor the offensive line was without Tristan Wirfs.
  • Cooper Kupp, who had killed the Bucs in their three previous meetings over the past three years, proved to be the difference once again. He caught nine passes for 183 yards and a touchdown. He came up with catches of 20 and 44 yards on the Rams’ final drive to set up the game-winning field goal.
  • The Buccaneers’ title defense officially came to an end on Sunday night in brutal fashion. They overcame a 27-3 deficit and tied the game with 42 seconds to go, only to allow two big plays that set up their former kicker for a game-winning field goal.
  • With their win, the Rams will return home to Los Angeles to host the NFC Championship Game against the 49ers next Sunday night. If they win that, they’ll become the second team in NFL history to play for the Lombardi Trophy in their home stadium, following the Bucs, who did it a year ago.

The Buccaneers will now enter the offseason, which is sure to get off to a nervous start as Tom Brady will reportedly take a month or so to decide whether or not he will retire.