Down 27-3 in the third quarter, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers engineered an improbable rally to tie the Los Angeles Rams with 42 seconds remaining before a Rams field goal as time expired sealed a 30-27 defeat and ended the Bucs’ season.
Tampa Bay’s quest to repeat as Super Bowl Champions ended Sunday on the same field where the team hoisted the Lombardi Trophy last February – at home before a capacity crowd in Raymond James Stadium. The last time an NFL team won back-to-back championships was nearly two decades ago, when Bucs quarterback Tom Brady led the New England Patriots to titles in 2003-2004.
After a dominating victory against the Philadelphia Eagles in the opening round of the playoffs, and with all defensive starters playing together for the first time after a series of injuries, the Bucs entered the Divisional Playoff with momentum. However, a sluggish start by Brady and the Tampa Bay offense, combined with touchdown passes from Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford to Kendall Blanton and Cooper Kupp, gave L.A. a 20-3 halftime lead. After the game, Bucs linebacker Lavonte David said the team was undeterred by the deficit at the break.
“I thought we were going to win at halftime,” said David, who paced the defense with 11 tackles and a fumble recovery. “We knew what we had to do to go out there and get back in it, and that’s what we did.”
Tampa Bay’s rally did not begin immediately, as Stafford led the Rams down the field on their second drive of the second half before running it in himself on third-and-goal from the three-yard line. The score gave the Rams a seemingly insurmountable lead with seven minutes remaining in the third quarter.
The Bucs’ offense showed signs of life on the next possession, and Brady quickly moved the team down the field on a 42-yard pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski. An 11-yard pass to wide receiver Mike Evans gave the Bucs a first down at the 12, but the Bucs ultimately had to settle for another Ryan Succop field goal to bring the deficit to 21 points with three minutes left in the third quarter.
The Tampa Bay defense then did its part, as cornerback Jamel Dean stripped the ball from Kupp and fellow corner Sean Murphy-Bunting scooped the fumble and weaved down to the Rams’ 30.
“Really, it was the defense getting turnovers,” said Head Coach Bruce Arians of what fueled the comeback. “But yeah, when you’ve got Tom, you’re never out of it.”
Following Murphy-Bunting’s fumble recovery Tampa Bay’s offense stalled and faced a fourth-and-nine. Arians had no choice but to go for the first down. Brady, under pressure from the Rams defense throughout the game, then found wide receiver Scotty Miller for a 16-yard completion down the left sideline. Two plays later, receiver Tyler Johnson took a quick pass to the one-yard line, and running back Leonard Fournette punched it in on the next play.
Then began a fourth quarter with more twists than an M. Night Shyamalan movie.
The Tampa Bay defense began the final period by holding the Rams to a three-and-out. Down 21-10, the Bucs got the ball back at their own 30 with 14:41 left in regulation. However, Rams defender Von Miller stripped the ball from Brady on the offense’s first play to temporarily halt the rally. Miller recovered the fumble, and the Rams were again in scoring position at the Bucs’ 25.
L.A. center Brian Allen then snapped the ball well over an unsuspecting Stafford’s head, thwarting the Rams’ hopes of capitalizing on the turnover. Tampa defender Jason Pierre-Paul raced to recover the fumble, giving the ball right back to the Bucs at the Rams’ 45-yard line.
“We scratched and clawed, and they kept giving us the ball and giving us chances …,” said Evans after the game.
A 13-yard pass to Gronkowski put the Bucs in a position to score, but a subsequent sack on Brady left the team facing fourth-and-14. The Bucs again went for the conversion, and a pass to Evans down the sideline fell incomplete. However, an unnecessary roughness penalty on Rams safety Eric Weddle for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Evans gave the team and fans hope.
After a lengthy discussion, the referee explained the 15-yard penalty is a post-possession foul and did not convert the fourth-and-14 play. The Rams received the ball and forced the Bucs to exhaust their three timeouts following a series of run plays. The Buccaneers then got the ball back on their 23-yard line with 3:56 remaining and went to work.
The drive began with a 19-yard strike from Brady to Miller. Two plays later, Brady launched a 55-yard bomb to Evans, who adjusted to make the catch on the right sideline. Evans galloped into the end zone to make it a seven-point spread with 3:15 left in the game.
With the home team out of timeouts, the Rams simply needed a first down to run out the clock and seal the victory. L.A. running back Cam Akers appeared to have that first down before Tampa’s Ndamukong Suh pried the ball from Akers and recovered the fumble. The crowd at Raymond James exploded, and the Bucs were back in business at the Rams’ 30.
A catch and two runs by Fournette gave the Bucs a first down at the 18. Following two incompletions, a catch over the middle by tight end Cameron Brate left the Bucs at fourth-and-inches. Fournette, who earned the nickname Playoff Lenny for his postseason heroics last year, broke through an arm tackle to find the right side of the endzone.
After the extra point, the game was tied 27-27 with just 42 seconds left in regulation.
Suh and Pierre-Paul combined to sack Stafford on the first play of the final possession, and it appeared the divisional matchup was headed for overtime. The Bucs blitzed Stafford on the next play, who avoided the pressure to complete a long pass downfield to Kupp. Kupp’s 44-yard catch set up a game-winning field goal for the Rams as time expired.
After the game, Arians said the long completion that sealed the team’s fate resulted from miscommunication by the defense.
“Some of the guys didn’t blitz,” said Arians. ” … it was an all-out blitz, and we should have got a ton of pressure.
“That’s obviously not the final we wanted.”
Brady was under pressure for most of the game, taking three sacks and many more hits by the Rams’ vaunted front-seven. In the second quarter, linebacker Von Miller left Brady with a bloody lip that resulted in his first unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in 22 years of pro football. The referee declined to penalize Miller for the strike to the face, and Brady strongly voiced his displeasure.
Brady overcame shaky offensive line play and a slow start to complete 30 of 54 passes for 329 yards, with one score and one interception in his last game of the year.
“We overcame a lot of mistakes,” Brady told reporters after the game. “They made plenty of mistakes too, and it wasn’t, I would say, a perfect game by them either, but in the end, they just made one more play than us.”