It’s not the best win of Sean McVay’s tenure with the Los Angeles Rams.
It’s just the craziest.
Rewatching the 2022 Divisional Round playoff game between Tampa Bay and the Rams is a treat, mainly because I know how it ends, but this time, I wanted to actually chart the number of times the Rams basically had the game won but didn’t put it away.
This is the game that made Tom Brady retire – the first time. Coming into the game, the Rams had dominated the Bucs 34-24 in SoFi in the regular season, but the Bucs were defending Super Bowl champs. They were home. The Rams had brought in Von Miller, OBJ and Matthew Stafford to win a Super Bowl.
The jury was still out on Stafford (really) and OBJ if they could really produce in the clutch.
While the Rams win over the Bengals three weeks later in the Super Bowl is the best one of McVay’s tenure, Ram fans might remember this game more.
It was 27-3, until it wasn’t. The Rams were about to be a laughingstock, then they became champions. I think as time goes on this game might be remembered more than the Super Bowl.
Here’s looking back on that crazy afternoon in Tampa.
So Hard To Say Good-Bye
Honestly, my first impression when the Rams take the field (aside from the stupid name patch on the jersey) is all the guys who aren’t Rams anymore.
The Bucs take the ball first. On the Rams defense are Greg Gaines (just signed with Tampa, of all places), Nick Scott (signed with Bengals), Jalen Ramsey (traded to Miami), Von Miller (Bills), Troy Reeder (Chargers in 2022, now Vikings), Leonard Floyd (free agent) and Darious Williams (Jaguars).
I mean, I know the NFL stands for Not For Long, but this game was only 15 months ago. All those guys are gone.
The Perfect First Half
It’s 100 percent true. The Rams play perfect football for the first 30 minutes. They get a field goal on their first drive, a TD pass from Stafford to Kendall Blanton on their second drive, a long TD pass to Cooper Kupp on their third. It’s 17-3 early in the second quarter. The Rams look young and fast. The Bucs look old and slow.
At halftime its 20-3 LA, and it should have been more, but Cam Akers fumbled near the Bucs goal line just before halftime.
Yes, that was an omen of things to come.
Fourth and Forever
The whole story of this game is what happens in the fourth quarter, really the final four minutes. There are six, maybe more, but I counted six HUGE turning points in the fourth quarter.
1. The Bad Snap
I had forgotten this play. The Rams are up 27-13 early in the fourth and Miller comes around with a picture perfect strip sack of Brady. Rams get the ball at the Bucs 26.
It’s game over.
A TD would be great, but even a field goal makes it a three-score game.
What happens next? Who knows? Stafford goes in the shotgun and center Brian Allen snaps the ball before he’s ready. The ball flies 30 yards downfield where the Bucs recover.
After the play, it still didn’t seem like the Rams knew what happened. Allen chatted with his linemate, if I had to guess…it would almost seem like they were saying the Bucs simulated a snap count and that was why he snapped it.
2. Brady Too High
The Bucs drive a little bit, but on fourth and 14 from the Rams 37, Brady throws a pass off target for Mike Evans. Eric Weddle pops Evans (it was a cheap shot — Weddle could be like that) and gets flagged.
The Rams get a huge break though because the personal foul came just after the ball hit the ground, so the penalty counted, but it was Rams ball because the penalty came after the possession change. So its game over, right?
3. Gay Too Short
Akers has a good drive and the Rams work their way down to the Bucs 30. Fans are leaving (seriously). Matt Gay comes out on the field for a 47-year field goal. If he makes it, its ball game.
Gay hasn’t missed a kick all year basically. And the TV view is weird. The kick is high. It’s between the uprights and then, its like…no good. Neither Al Michaels or Cris Collinsworth ever says why, but the kick was short.
Not exactly clutch there Matt, but he comes back. You’ll see.
4. Bucs Fail Again
The Bucs get a horrible pass interference call on Darious Williams to move into Ram territory, but on fourth-and-10 at the Rams 31, Brady sails a pass too high for tight end Cameron Brate. Rams ball. Game over, right? There’s 4:26 left.
5. Burned Star
The Bucs use their timeouts and the Rams punt after just 30 seconds. Two plays later, Brady throws one deep for Evans who gets behind Jalen Ramsey and it’s an easy TD catch. It’s 27-20.
Ram fans would see this again in the Super Bowl when Jalen Ramsey got burned by Ja’Marr Chase on the first play of the second half. Are we sure Jalen Ramsey is still good? Because these are the moments that start to stand out.
6. Akers Drops It
What else can you say? It’s 27-20, the Bucs have no timeouts. The Rams have the ball. One first down probably clinches it. They are conservative, giving the ball to Akers. He gets stripped by Ndamukong Suh. Bucs ball. A few minutes later, Bucs TD. Holy smoke it’s 27-27 with 42 seconds left.
But that’s not the end.
The End Game Strategy
Let’s do some semi-deep football concepts here. The cover-2 defense refers to a defense having two players (usually safeties) play back, splitting the field in half and covering the wide receivers who come into their area.
This has been around forever, but was made famous by the Bucs and it even picked up the nickname the “Tampa-2.” The secret to it is having a linebacker who can run with tight ends over the middle. The Bucs had Derrick Brooks, a superstar LB 20 years ago who could do that. The Bears had Brian Urlacher in the middle and he could do the same thing. It’s a perfect defense in that case, because the middle is covered and you’re basically putting two guys on the outside of the field. (It’s harder to throw over the middle because of the pass rush).
How do you beat it? Your QB has to be accurate with passes down the sideline, because there’s a gap in-between the cornerback and safety. The safeties always cheat toward the middle of the field while theoretically the cornerbacks are in “trail” position.
The idea is force the QB to throw the ball in between the two of them.
But Matt Stafford could do this. (At this point, Brady couldn’t).
When Kupp scored on the long TD pass in the first half, that was all Stafford did. The announcers talked about how the Bucs had miscommunication on the defense. No they didn’t. That was the defense. Stafford just executed the play. He split the cover-2.
Rams get the ball with 42 seconds left and one timeout. They really could have fallen on the ball and played for OT.
But no, they go for it. Stafford hits Kupp over the middle for 20 yards, so the ball is at midfield.
The Rams are out of timeouts.
The Bucs realize by this point that they can’t just run a cover-2 defense, Stafford can make the throw, so on this play, they blitz one of their cornerbacks.
This puts Antoine Wingfield Jr. against Kupp alone. (You can argue the decision if you’re a Bucs fan, but they’re trying to be aggressive too). Kupp blows by Wingfield Jr. and Stafford hits him in stride down to the Bucs 13.
That can’t happen.
It did happen.
Gay comes on the field and drills a 30-yard field goal at the gun. After winning it, losing it, and winning it again and again, only to almost lose it again, the Rams win.
Did You Notice?
This was a chippy game. This was the game where Miller popped Brady in the mouth, giving him a bloody lip and Brady ended up getting called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
It was chippy though even before that, Suh and Stafford had gotten tangled up on a sack early in the first quarter and Suh yelled at the refs that Stafford had kicked him south of the border. I watched this play close, but what happens really is Stafford’s legs get caught in between Suh’s and as they roll over, Stafford’s leg pops out. It even looked (to me) like after the play Stafford reaches out for Suh, like, hey man, help me up. They played together in Detroit for years. Suh barked at the ref and got flagged.
This is the last football game for Rob Gronkowski. It really probably should have been Brady’s last game too. He’s just immobile at this point.
On the last play of the game, the field goal, Bucs defensive back Dee Delaney is either just offsides or timed the snap perfectly, because he comes flying off the edge and almost blocks Gay’s kick. The Rams wingback on that side, Kendall Blanton, is seen complaining to the refs looking for a flag, even as Gay’s kick goes through.