TAMPA — It has become a common exercise for the Bucs to exorcise demons, to be more concerned with avenging previous losses than merely seeking revenge for them.
A season ago, they lost twice to the Saints in the regular season but won the game that counted in the division round of the playoffs. The Bucs also lost to the Chiefs in the regular season before blasting them 31-9 in Super Bowl 55.
They settle scores by scoring when it matters most, like a counterpuncher who revels in adversity.
Which brings us to Sunday’s NFC division playoff game against the Rams, a team that handed the Bucs their first loss of the season in Week 3 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.
The score was tied at 7 until late in the second quarter, when Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford connected with receiver Cooper Kupp for a 2-yard touchdown. At the start of the second half with the Bucs still down by just a touchdown, they blew a coverage and lost track of receiver DeSean Jackson on a 75-yard catch-and-run for a score. The Bucs got no closer than seven points the rest of the game.
“We know postseason is a whole different ballgame,” Bucs receiver Mike Evans said.
“You get the best of the best, all-out effort. Everybody is straining to make sure they are playing the next week. I’ve always liked playing a team that beats us. Even in the regular season, if we’re playing a division opponent that beat us the first time, I want to beat them bad the second time.”
Both the Bucs and the Rams have changed dramatically since that meeting in September.
The Bucs have lost receiver Chris Godwin to a season-ending injury, and receiver Antonio Brown was released. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was forced to leave the game against the Rams with a rib fracture, is back.
The Bucs hope running back Leonard Fournette can return from a hamstring strain that has kept him out of the past four games. Running back Ronald Jones appears to be out with an ankle sprain, but those two backs have been satisfactorily replaced by Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Giovani Bernard.
“They’re each their own individual type of game,” Bucs quarterback Tom Brady said of facing the Rams again. “They’re going to require their own individual type of performance. I think the point is, it doesn’t really matter when we played them last. It’s really about this game and what we learned from the last game.”
Unfortunately for the Bucs, the Rams have changed for the better on defense.
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Already with a formidable front that sacked Brady three times in the first meeting, the Rams have added former Broncos Pro Bowl defensive end Von Miller to a group of pass rushers that already included Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd.
“They’re just good at what they do,” Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “These guys have awareness. They always play good defense there. … They’re just good at all three levels.”
The Rams under coach Sean McVay have faced Brady three times. They lost to him and the Patriots 13-3 in the Super Bowl for the 2018 season. But since Brady signed with the Bucs before the 2020 season, the Rams have beaten him twice, also winning 27-24 in 2020.
“Tom sees the whole field, and we all know about Tom in the playoffs” Miller said this week. “He’s incredible, man. We have to play our best ball to have a chance.”
Offensively, the Rams have committed more to running, especially last week in a wild-card win against the Cardinals with the remarkable return of former Florida State star running back Cam Akers from an Achilles injury suffered just over five months ago.
Akers and running back Sony Michel took some of the pressure off Stafford, who played wobbly down the stretch with eight interceptions in his final four regular-season games. Against the Cardinals, Stafford had to attempt only 17 passes in a 34-11 win.
“We need to get more pressure, we need to be relentless in our effort in getting to the quarterback, getting him off his spot, sacks, hits, pressures,” Bucs linebacker Shaquil Barrett said. “Just anything to make him uncomfortable back there.”
What the Bucs haven’t been in position to do lately is control Kupp, who has averaged 10 catches for 120 yards and a touchdown in his past three games against Tampa Bay. Bucs coach Bruce Arians compared him to Godwin. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said the Bucs have to limit Kupp’s yards after the catch.
“He’s going to catch balls, but you want to slow him down from breaking tackles for extra yards,” Bowles said. “You don’t want a 5-yard play going for 20 and a 15-yard play going for 50, so we’ve got to tackle better and we’ve got to react to the ball.”
No player is better in the postseason than Brady, who is already locked in on the Rams.
“You try to eliminate all the distractions,” he said. “This isn’t the time for the trips to the movie theaters. This is the time to lock in on football, because this is all we have. Three days left, and we’ve got to earn more.”
Contact Rick Stroud at email@example.com. Follow @NFLSTROUD.
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