One week removed from dispatching the Eagles on Super Wild Card Weekend, Tom Brady runs into a familiar foe in the Divisional Round with a ticket to the NFC Championship game on the line.
Three years ago, Brady – then a member of the Patriots – squeaked by the Los Angeles Rams in a defense-heavy Super Bowl LIII. Now wearing a different uniform and surrounded by a different supporting cast from the one that lifted the trophy alongside him in 2019, he meets the Rams in another crucially important postseason clash.
But while some parts of these Rams are the same as they were three years ago, most of the roster is a completely new look. The arrivals of players like Von Miller, Odell Beckham Jr., and Matthew Stafford have added some star power to the Rams, and even the parts that haven’t changed are still wildly different. Sean McVay has much more experience under his belt and Cooper Kupp has broken out as one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. It’s not the same challenge.
So where will the Divisional Round clash between the Buccaneers and Rams be won and lost?
One place to look at right away is Tampa Bay’s maligned offense. We’ve mentioned it a number of times already on this site, but the Buccaneers are without Chris Godwin, a 1,000-yard receiver, and Cyril Grayson, who was completely out of the picture up until a few weeks ago when he broke into the receivers’ room and impressed. They’re also without Antonio Brown (obviously), and that one is a bit more permanent than the other two.
That leaves Mike Evans, who is indisputably one of the best pass-catchers in the league but has a tendency to go quiet in some games, and Rob Gronkowski, who has been Brady’s reliable safety blanket since his time in New England. Those two, combined with Leonard Fournette and Giovani Bernard, should be enough to get the offense to tick, especially considering Brady likes to keep things short and simple. But will a depleted playmaker group finally come back to bite?
In what may be good news for Tampa Bay, the Rams don’t defend the pass nearly as well as they defend the run. Los Angeles boasts the fifth-best rushing defense in the NFL and just the 22nd-best pass defense (although they allow the second-fewest passing touchdowns in the league, which is equally fascinating as it is confusing). The Rams pass defense also ranks middle of the pack in air yards but near the worst in the league in receptions and yards after the catch, suggesting that they’re susceptible to the catch and run – something that Brady has been known to exploit – Tampa Bay pass catchers have racked up the second most yards after the catch in the entire league.
The best way for the Rams to counter that weakness is by getting to the quarterback quicker with the pass rush and not allowing those reads to develop. With the Rams, it’s hard to predict how well they’ll do in that department. They’ve recorded the third-most sacks in the NFL, which should be a strong measurement of how well they infiltrate the pocket, but that’s countered by their less than impressive percentage of hurries and quarterback knockdowns.
On the other side of the ball, it’ll have to be the Rams passing attack to progress the ball as the Bucs boast one of the best rushing defenses in the league. That isn’t a bad thing to hear for Rams fans, though – the world knows how game-breaking that passing game can be, led by Matthew Stafford who finally grabbed that elusive first postseason win last weekend against the Cardinals and bolstered by quality receivers like Kupp, Beckham and a surehanded tight end in Tyler Higbee. Not to mention running backs Sony Michel and Darrell Henderson who can make impacts in the passing game as well, this could be one that’s destined for the OVER.
We’ll get fireworks in this one. There’s too much offensive firepower not to. Even without Chris Godwin, the Bucs have more than enough big-play potential when TB12 is taking snaps. And the quality of the Rams offense is obvious, headlined by a player who just posted one of the greatest single seasons for a receiver in NFL history. In the end, I think it comes down to the quarterbacks. Stafford has a shaky postseason history and Brady should never be doubted, especially when he’s going against a defense that allows him to play the way he wants to play. I like the Bucs at home to advance to the NFC Championship.
Photo courtesy of NFL.com.