In the final Thursday night game of the season, the Rams held off the mistake-prone Buccaneers behind stellar performances from Tavon Austin and Case Keenum, and made their case to remain in St. Louis.
It was a good night on the field for the Rams. Quarterback Case Keenum completed 14 of 17 passes for 234 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Rookie running back Todd Gurley carried the ball 21 times for 48 yards and a touchdown, raising his season total to 1,023 yards and becoming the third player in franchise history (Eric Dickerson, Jerome Bettis) to rush for over 1,000 yards in his first NFL season.
The Rams beat the mostly-listless Buccaneers, 31–23 to keep their playoff hopes alive at 6–8, but the question everyone wants answered is, where will they play next year? Chances are good that the Rams, who have been in St. Louis since 1995, could be moving back to Los Angeles once the season is over. There will be a vote among the owners in January, and the fans were well aware of that fact—in what may have been the last home game at the Edward Jones Dome, the people inside the half-full stadium shouted “Keep the Rams” at full throat all the way through the game.
We don't yet know how that will turn out, but this may have been the most balanced performance for a team that has struggled to maintain equilibrium throughout the season. St. Louis’ defense put pressure on Jameis Winston all night long, and though Winston put up career-best numbers in some aspects (29 of 50 for 363 yards, two touchdowns and one interception), but he was hurried to throw, especially in the first half, and Tampa Bay's offense didn't really get going until the Rams were up 28–6 late in the third quarter.
For his part, Winston did lead his team on a four-play, 98-yard touchdown drive at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but it was Tampa Bay’s next drive that ended in profound embarrassment and pointed to the level of inconsistency on Lovie Smith's team. Down 28–13 with 10:34 left in the game, the Bucs moved down the field but absolutely imploded in the red zone. They had five plays from the Rams’ 13-yard line and closer, aided by an encroachment call on St. Louis defensive end Eugene Sims, and had to settle for a 24-yard field goal by Connor Barth. The worst play came when Winston threw to tight Austin Seferian-Jenkins who was stopped just short of the goal line, he got up and threw the ball to the ground in frustration, and was penalized for delay of game. That wiped out the positive gain and, in effect, the entire drive.
Tampa Bay’s night was full of miscues and penalties, nine for 56 yards, rendering their statistical dominance irrelevant. They outgained St. Louis 509 yards to 319, won the first down battle 30 to 16 and had nearly three times as many pass attempts, but none of that mattered. It was all noise, because when the key moments came, Winston’s receivers couldn't make plays in the first half, and the Bucs’ halftime adjustments—start with shorter passes and wait for openings deep as opposed to forcing everything in the passing game—were too little, too late.
The primary reason for the Bucs’ offensive struggles was Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year and a solid candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in 2015. Donald came into this game with 11 sacks, tied with his hero, Cincinnati's Geno Atkins, for the NFL lead among defensive tackles. He didn't post a sack against the Bucs, but he had at least three quarterback hits, a ton of hurries, and he got in Winston's head from the start.
“He’s a young quarterback, and we wanted to get our hands on him, and we did that,” Donald told the NFL Network after the game. As for his transcendent excellence, he said that there's no mystery.
“Working my butt off all offseason and coming into this year a better player. Watching a lot of film of myself, studying myself in the offseason, and trying to make myself a better player. The hard work has paid off.”
As for the response from the fans, who stayed in the dome long after the game was decided to voice their dedication, Donald was touched.
“They’re great fans,” he said. “They were loud for us today, and they played a big part in us winning this game.”
The Buccaneers do know where they’ll be playing next season, but will be flying home with a major disappointment of a loss on their hands, and 10 days to think about it before facing the Bears, Smith's former team, on Dec. 27. A 6–8 record is a big step up from last season’s 2–14, but this was one of many missed opportunities for Tampa Bay this year.
St. Louis is hoping for a much bigger win for their Rams than the one that happened tonight. Their team will finish off the season at Seattle and San Francisco, and then, a vote that could end football in their city for a long time to come.
So, there are wins, and there are big wins. The Rams are still in the small category for now.