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The Bucs are favored against the Rams, so why is your eye twitching?

John Romano | You could write it off as a small sample size, but the Rams are 2-0 against the Bucs in the Tom Brady era.
Tom Brady ended up with more than 400 passing yards in a 34-24 loss to the Rams in September, but he also got sacked three times and lost a fumble against the fierce Los Angeles pass rush.
Tom Brady ended up with more than 400 passing yards in a 34-24 loss to the Rams in September, but he also got sacked three times and lost a fumble against the fierce Los Angeles pass rush. [ KEVORK DJANSEZIAN | Associated Press ]
Published Jan. 18|Updated Jan. 18

TAMPA — You began the week in a great mood.

The Bucs had shown up for the playoffs on their best behavior, and the roster was finally beginning to look semi-healthy again. Not to mention, everyone in Tampa Bay was preparing for back-to-back playoff games at home for the first time since 1979.

Then you watched the Rams humiliate the Cardinals on Monday night.

Suddenly, the temperature felt a little cooler in the house. The leftover bean dip didn’t smell so good. And that NFC Championship Game rematch with Green Bay that you have been dreaming about felt a little more abstract and a lot less certain.

Yes, the road back to the Super Bowl appears bumpier after seeing how impressive Los Angeles looked in its 34-11 wild-card victory against Arizona.

You began to recall that the Rams were the No. 2 seed until stumbling in the final week of the regular season. Then it occurred to you that — other than the Saints — the Rams are the only team to have beaten the Bucs twice since Tom Brady hit town. All your good vibes began to dissipate.

Well, fear not my friends. I wouldn’t say the Bucs are a shoo-in on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium — most betting lines seem to have them as a three-point favorite — but there’s no reason to be spooked. At least not until we see Tristan Wirfs still walking with a limp later in the week.

With that in mind, here are three reasons for bluster and three reasons for panic.

Reason No. 1 for panic

The Bucs ground game was non-existent earlier this season vs. the Rams. Leonard Fournette gained just 8 yards on four carries.
The Bucs ground game was non-existent earlier this season vs. the Rams. Leonard Fournette gained just 8 yards on four carries. [ KEVORK DJANSEZIAN | Associated Press ]

That 34-24 loss to the Rams in September? Yeah, it wasn’t as close as it sounds.

You could point out that Brady threw for 432 yards and no interceptions, but those stats are misleading. The Rams were in control for much of the afternoon and a lot of Tampa Bay’s yardage came in a desperate attempt to close the gap in the second half.

The truth is, the Rams were in control much of the afternoon. The Bucs were unable to run the ball in the first half, then gave up the running game in the second half. Brady’s passing numbers look a lot better than they appear because the Rams were content to let the Bucs throw underneath.

Brady was 2-of-6 passing on throws that went 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

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Reason No. 1 for bluster

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford ended the regular-season win against the Bucs with a 148.8 passer rating.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford ended the regular-season win against the Bucs with a 148.8 passer rating. [ KEVORK DJANSEZIAN | Associated Press ]

There were extenuating circumstances in that early-season loss.

Never mind that the Bucs came into the game without Jason Pierre-Paul or Antonio Brown. Or that Rob Gronkowski would eventually leave with fractured ribs. The game seemed to turn when cornerback Jamel Dean left with a knee injury with three minutes remaining in the first quarter.

The Bucs were already without Sean Murphy-Bunting, who had been out since the season opener, and that meant Dee Delaney and Ross Cockrell were pressed into service at cornerback. Delaney had played just five snaps on defense in his NFL career coming into the afternoon.

Neither team had scored when Dean left the game and Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford was 4 of 9 passing for 47 yards. From that point on, Stafford completed 23 of 29 passes for 296 yards and four touchdowns, which is a 148.8 passer rating. A 158.3 is the highest rating a quarterback can achieve.

Reason No. 2 for panic

Rams defensive end Aaron Donald celebrates during the first half of Sunday's wild-card playoff game against the Cardinals.
Rams defensive end Aaron Donald celebrates during the first half of Sunday's wild-card playoff game against the Cardinals. [ MARK J. TERRILL | Associated Press ]

You know how much pride the Bucs defense takes in its pass rush, right? They have accumulated 95 sacks in the past two regular seasons, which is an average of nearly three drops per game.

Well, the Rams are even better. Los Angeles has 103 sacks the past two years and the Rams do it without having to blitz nearly as much. That’s because Aaron Donald is the most disruptive defensive lineman in the league, and that’s not a pleasant thought with Wirfs, center Ryan Jensen and backup tackle Josh Wells all leaving Sunday’s game in varying degrees of pain.

Brady gets rid of the ball as quickly as any quarterback in the game, but those timing patterns have been disrupted without Chris Godwin or Antonio Brown in the lineup.

Reason No. 2 for bluster

If the Rams can't get to quick-draw Tom Brady, it could be a long day for them in Tampa.
If the Rams can't get to quick-draw Tom Brady, it could be a long day for them in Tampa. [ KEVORK DJANSEZIAN | Associated Press ]

Soooo … if Brady has time to throw, the Rams could be in trouble.

Los Angeles was without its top two safeties against Arizona, but neither quarterback Kyler Murray nor coach Kliff Kingbury had the savvy to adjust the gameplan and take advantage of the situation. You can bet that Brady will not let a weakness go unexploited.

Now, it’s possible that safety Taylor Rapp could be back on the field as long as he passes the concussion protocol this week. Jordan Fuller, however, is out for the season with an ankle injury. The Rams were concerned enough about their depth at safety that they brought former Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle out of his two-year retirement for the game against the Cardinals.

Reason No. 3 for panic

Rams kicker Matt Gay (8) is congratulated by teammates after kicking a field goal against the Cardinals on Sunday.
Rams kicker Matt Gay (8) is congratulated by teammates after kicking a field goal against the Cardinals on Sunday. [ MARK J. TERRILL | Associated Press ]

Do you believe in karma? Or would it be vengeance? Whatever you want to call it, the Bucs could be facing a reckoning that would live forever in Tampa Bay.

If this game comes down to the final minutes, the Rams will have a Pro Bowl placekicker ready to trot onto the field at Raymond James Stadium. Fella by the name of Matt Gay.

You might recall the Bucs made Gay the highest placekicker chosen in the 2019 draft when they picked him in the fifth round. A year later, they released him in training camp. Since then, Gay has converted 64 of 65 extra-point attempts and 46 of 50 field goals, including 5-of-6 beyond 50 yards.

Yeah, chew on that for a while.

Reason No. 3 for bluster

Rams wide receiver Van Jefferson misses a catch in front of cornerback Carlton Davis during the teams' regular-season meeting.
Rams wide receiver Van Jefferson misses a catch in front of cornerback Carlton Davis during the teams' regular-season meeting. [ KEVORK DJANSEZIAN | Associated Press ]

While Brady deservedly got a ton of credit for changing the culture in Tampa Bay last season, the real heroes of the postseason were the 11 guys on defense.

In three successive playoff games, the Bucs befuddled Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes, holding the three former NFL MVPs to four touchdown passes while picking off six passes and getting eight sacks.

Now they’ll face Stafford, who has put up Hall of Fame numbers in his career but has also thrown as many interceptions as any active quarterback in the NFL in the last decade, and is second in sacks.

It will be billed as Stafford vs. Brady, but the real showdown is Stafford vs. Shaquil Barrett and Stafford vs. Jordan Whitehead and Stafford vs. Carlton Davis.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes

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