Rams nearly blow 24-point lead but hang on to beat Buccaneers in thriller

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The Los Angeles Rams beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 30-27, in Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game at Raymond James Stadium, sending Tom Brady home for the remainder of the playoffs and Matthew Stafford into his first conference championship game.

And what a thriller it ended up.

After Brady and the Buccaneers tied the score with less than a minute left, erasing a 24-point Rams lead, Stafford hit Cooper Kupp on 44- and 20-yard passes in the waning seconds to set up the game-winning kick from Matt Gay, the former Buccaneer who was cut by Tampa Bay and who had missed an attempt midway through the fourth quarter.

The Rams will take on their NFC West rivals, the San Francisco 49ers, next Sunday at SoFi Stadium, the same venue that will host Super Bowl LVI two weeks later. This will be the first time in league history that a team will host a conference championship game in the Super Bowl stadium.

TAMPA, FLORIDA - JANUARY 23: Matthew Stafford #9 of the Los Angeles Rams calls a play in the second quarter of the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Divisional Playoff game at Raymond James Stadium on January 23, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Matthew Stafford and the Rams are one game away from the Super Bowl. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

L.A.'s stars showed up to topple Tampa Tom

The Rams’ all-in gamble is close to paying off the way the team’s architects drew it up. This is exactly what they imagined when they traded for Stafford and Von Miller, and signed Odell Beckham Jr. over the past calendar year.

The Rams’ stars came to play. Stafford was hot early, staking L.A. to a three-score lead and beating the mighty Brady, who suffered his first playoff loss as a Buc. Aaron Donald and Miller were in Brady’s face most of the game.

Kupp had a costly second-half fumble but took the top off the Bucs’ defense early in the game with a 70-yard touchdown and atoned late with his two massive catches to set up Gay's winning kick. Beckham caught six passes for 69 yards, generating four first downs. Kupp finished with nine catches for 183 yards and a score. Stafford threw for 336 yards and two TDs.

And it was good enough, even with some unbelievably tense moments while protecting the lead to keep Brady out of the running for an eighth Super Bowl ring. Amid a flurry of speculation he might consider retiring, Brady missed out on a shot to reach his 15th conference championship game.

Brady's comeback falls short

Brady kept the Bucs in the game after they fell behind 27-3. The comeback king cut the lead to 27-20 with just over three minutes remaining and the Bucs tied the game with less than a minute left on Leonard Fournette's 9-yard TD run with 46 seconds left. But it was not enough as Gay’s 30-yard field goal ended it.

Brady finished 30-of-54 passing for 329 yards with a TD and an interception, overcoming a slow start and early pressure to bring the Bucs close to pulling off an insane comeback.

Instead, the Rams will be headed to their 11th NFC championship game and their second appearance since returning to Los Angeles, making it three straight divisional-round games where the road team pulled the upset.

The Rams and Bucs each were down a starting offensive tackle. The Rams appeared to handle life better without Andrew Whitworth than the Buccaneers did without Tristan Wirfs. The Rams often put Donald over the gap of Wirfs’ replacement, Scott Wells, and it led to Brady facing a ton of pressure. Miller also did his part, strip-stripping Brady in the fourth quarter after the Bucs cut it to a two-touchdown lead.

The Rams got on the board first with a field goal from Gay — a one-time Bucs kicker — to cap a 72-yard opening drive. Then on the Rams’ next possession, they got some help from two Bucs penalties (for 31 yards) and finished the drive with Stafford hitting Kendall Blanton for the game’s first TD. And it was Blanton’s first NFL touchdown, too, giving Los Angeles a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.

Brady missed on his first four pass attempts. He got in enough of a groove on the Buccaneers’ third drive to cut the lead to 10-3 with a Ryan Succop field goal, but it was clear that the timing and rhythm of the Tampa Bay offense was not cooking as usual.

Meanwhile, Stafford kept dealing. A blown coverage by the Bucs allowed Kupp to get wide open and race through the secondary for a 70-yard touchdown — on third-and-20, no less — and a shocking 17-3 Rams lead less than a minute into the second quarter.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady couldn't pull off an absurd comeback against the Rams. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady couldn't pull off an absurd comeback against the Rams. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)

After the two teams traded punts, the Buccaneers got the ball back and moved it into Rams territory. But Brady was flagged for the first unsportsmanlike conduct penalty of his career after complaining to the referees that he was hit late by Von Miller, moving the ball back 15 yards after a 7-yard completion. Brady gained 19 yards back with an improvised lob pass to Leonard Fournette, but Succop missed his 48-yard field-goal try to keep it a two-TD lead.

The Rams were not done before the half, but it could have been worse for the Buccaneers.

They drained nearly seven minutes of time on a 12-play, 41-yard drive, with Gay’s 40-yard field goal upping the Los Angeles lead to 20-3. Then, with the backed up inside their own 10-yard line and two minutes left in the second quarter, Brady threw off his back foot and lofted an interception right to safety Nick Scott.

The Rams looked to put their feet down on the Bucs’ necks as they moved inside the Tampa Bay 5-yard line. But Cam Akers fumbled at the 1-yard line with 14 seconds left in the half, costing the Rams at least three points.

The two teams swapped punts on their opening drives of the third quarter. But the Rams got a 33-yard return from Brandon Powell, and four plays later Stafford sneaked in a 1-yard touchdown and the Rams silenced the crowd by taking a 27-3 lead.

Brady famously brought the New England Patriots back from down 28-3 in Super Bowl LI, with a similar amount of time left on the clock.But it wasn’t meant to be for Brady and the Buccaneers on this day, even though they got key turnovers via second-half fumbles from Akers (again) and Kupp.

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