It's the Ghosts of Playoffs Past so far for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. First, they had to take down their old postseason nemesis in the Philadelphia Eagles. Now, they have to take on the Los Angeles Rams, who kept the Bucs from reaching the Super Bowl in both the 1980 NFC Championship game and the 2000 NFC Championship game.
An immediate trip to the Super Bowl isn't on the line in this game, but obviously, the privilege to keep playing football after this week is.
The Bucs lost to the Rams back in Week 3. Can Tampa Bay flip the script from the first meeting and also notch its first postseason win against the Rams?
- All-time series: The Rams lead the all-time series, 18-9, and are 2-0 against the Bucs in the postseason.
- Longest win streak: Los Angeles won six in a row from 1984-1992.
- Largest margin of victory: The Rams blasted the Bucs, 35-3, back in 1987.
- 2021 offensive and defensive rankings: The Bucs finished 2021 with the NFL's second-best offense (1st pass, 26th run) and the 13th-ranked defense (21st pass, 3rd run). Tampa Bay averaged 30.1 points per game on offense (2nd) and allowed 20.8 points per game on defense (t-5th). The Rams finished with the NFL's seventh-ranked offense (5th pass, 23rd run) and the NFL's 15th-best defense (21st pass, 6th run). They averaged 27.4 points per game on offense (6th), while allowing 21.3 points per game on defense (9th).
What To Watch For
- The Bucs offensive line: It's still unknown as to whether or not Tristan Wirfs will play. If he doesn't, then that's an All-Pro missing from Tampa Bay's lineup, which is obviously a big deal when facing off against a pass rush like the Rams'. Josh Wells will fill in at right tackle, and while Wells is a decent backup, he's obviously no Wirfs. Can the Bucs offensive line keep Tom Brady upright? It's no coincidence that Tampa Bay's front five became one of the NFL's best after Wirfs was drafted in 2020. Even if Wirfs does go, it's logical to assume his ankle is going to prevent him from playing at 100%. Either way, Tampa Bay's offensive line is going to have to play its best game of the season against the Rams.
- Tampa Bay's pass rush: The Bucs have to get to Matthew Stafford on Sunday, there's no other way around it. One of the big reasons he was able to throw four touchdowns back in Week 3 was because Tampa Bay's pass rush was pretty much non-existent. Starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth is out and center Brian Allen has struggled this year. In fact, Allen has allowed a league-high 5.0 sacks among centers and he's one of the lowest-ranked centers when it comes to pass blocking efficiency, per Pro Football Focus. The Bucs pass rush is nearly at full strength, so there will be no excuses when it comes to how effective they are in this game.
- Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. vs. the Bucs secondary: Sean Murphy-Bunting will be a game-time decision, but the Bucs still have adequate options to replace him if he doesn't play. SMB doesn't run the secondary, however. That's Carlton Davis III's, Jordan Whitehead's, and Antoine Winfield Jr.'s job. And guess what? Those three guys are healthy and ready to roll. When you add in Jamel Dean's impressive Wild Card performance, it's easy to see why the Bucs secondary and the Rams receivers will be one of the top battles to watch.
- Leonard Fournette's return: That's right, Playoff Lenny returns to the postseason against the Rams after a four-game absence. His abilities as a runner and receiver are crucial to Tampa Bay's offensive prowess, but it's Fournette's improvement in pass protection that will really come in handy against the Rams. The Bucs are going to have to leave him in as an extra blocker throughout this game and he's easily the best option at running back when it comes to keeping Brady upright. With Fournette, the Bucs now have reliable and effective players at all three levels of the offense.
- Special Teams: I know special teams don't sell tickets, but they often play a big role in close games, which is what this game should be. I mean, just ask Aaron Rodgers and the Packers how much of a difference special teams can make in the postseason. Believe it or not, the Bucs are at a disadvantage when it comes to Ryan Succop vs. Matt Gay due to Gay's incredible 2021 season and his ability to boot 55-yarders. Then, there's Johnny Hekker vs. Bradley Pinion. Hekker is fourth in net average per punt while Pinion is 23rd. Field position will go a long way in this game, so both punters will have to be on their game. Pinion had a good game against the Eagles, but has been very inconsistent this year. The Rams' coverage unit is also fourth in overall DVOA, which is much better than the Bucs' ranking of 27. The Bucs are going to have to get the most out of Keith Armstrong's crew if they want to win this game.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- QB Tom Brady: Brady hasn't fared well against the Rams since he joined the Bucs, but the playoffs are a different animal. Will he get his revenge like he did last year with the Saints?
- RB Leonard Fournette: The Bucs' lead running back is good to go and will play Sunday. How much impact he has on the game remains to be seen, however.
- TE Rob Gronkowski: Gronk will be the guy the Bucs look to a lot during this game. He should have a nice day.
- DL Vita Vea: Stopping the Rams offense starts with interior pressure and Vea is one of the best at collapsing the pocket.
- CB Jamel Dean: Bruce Arians said the Wild Card game was Dean's best game as a Buc. He needs to have an even better game this week.
- S Antoine Winfield Jr.: He's the playmaker on the Bucs' back end of the defense and saved the Divisional Round against the Saints last year. The Bucs are going to need his playmaking skills against the Rams.
Los Angeles Rams
- QB Matthew Stafford: We know how good this Rams offense is when Stafford doesn't turn the ball over. Can he be turnover-free for another playoff game?
- RB Cam Akers: It's amazing that Akers is playing right now. It's even more impressive that he's playing as well as he is.
- WR Cooper Kupp: Honestly, what is there to say about Kupp that we don't already know? He's a top-3 receiver in the league and will definitely do his fair share of damage on Sunday.
- DL Aaron Donald: Just like Kupp, we know everything there is to know about Donald. He's a game-wrecker and will take over the game if the Bucs let him.
- OLB Von Miller: He wasn't in the first matchup and looks more and more comfortable with each passing game. Defending Miller will be tough, especially if Wirfs doesn't go.
- CB Jalen Ramsey: Man, am I writing about the NFC Pro Bowl roster or listing impact players on defense for the Rams? Ramsey is another uber-talented playmaker on the defense and will follow Mike Evans for most of the day.
- The Bucs defense leads the NFL in points off takeaways (331) since 2019.
- Evans needs 55 receiving yards to surpass Keyshawn Johnson (375) for the most postseason receiving yards in franchise history.
- Fournette needs 42 rushing yards to surpass Mike Alstott (341) for the most postseason rushing yards in franchise history.
- Fournette needs 55 scrimmage yards to surpass Alstott (502) for the most postseason scrimmage yards in franchise history.
- Murphy-Bunting needs one interception to surpass Donnie Abraham, Dexter Jackson, and Dwight Smith (3) for the most postseason interceptions in franchise history, and tie Duron Harmon and Richard Sherman (4) for most among active players.
*Stats provided by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Communications Department
Well, here we are again. Another rematch from the regular season. Except for the Rams got the better of the Bucs during the regular season instead of the Bucs getting the better of the Eagles, like last week.
Los Angeles was already a tough matchup for Tampa Bay and the Rams have added Beckham Jr. and Miller since then. Plus, Akers has returned from his Achilles injury that he suffered during the preseason.
In other words: The Rams have gotten much stronger since Week 3.
The Bucs have returned some of their own players since that game, as well. Dean played just a handful of snaps, JPP missed the game and so did SMB. Plus, Gronk's injury essentially rendered him ineffective for most of the second half. Out of those players SMB is the only one who may not play in this game. Even if he doesn't go, the other returning players are big additions for the Bucs.
But the advantage may be on the sidelines and not on the field. Sean McVay has had a ton of success against Todd Bowles over the last three meetings and Raheem Morris' defense is a lot like the Saints defense. Morris' unit has a strong pass rush and can mix coverages up to create addition havoc. Brady is going to have to be dialed in and the Bucs defense is going to have play smart, disciplined football.
Tampa Bay does have a big advantage in regard to playing at home, though. The Rams played on Monday night and had to fly cross-country for this game, which basically means they lost two days of game prep, while the Bucs didn't have any of their preparation compromised in any form or fashion.
At the end of the day, this will be a slugfest that really just comes down to who makes the extra play or two needed to win. I do think the Bucs are the team that makes said play or two, which will result in them advancing to their second-straight NFC Championship.
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