TAMPA — The Super Bowl was still there for the taking. When it comes time to reflect on the 2021 season in the years to come, that detail should not be forgotten.
No matter how many injuries they endured, no matter how much noise Antonio Brown was continuing to make on social media, no matter how much the world was speculating about Tom Brady’s future, the Bucs had reached the final moments of one of the season’s final weekends with a chance to advance.
They had a real shot at playing the NFC Championship Game at home against the No. 6 seed if they could just win in overtime on Sunday. All they needed to do was keep the Rams from gaining 40 yards in 35 seconds with no timeouts.
Instead, they collapsed.
If that sounds harsh, it should. It should sting, it should haunt, it should infuriate. These opportunities do not come often, and Sunday’s 30-27 loss to Los Angeles should rightfully go down as one of the most bitter losses in franchise history.
So how did it happen?
A little bit of bad luck, followed by an incredibly risky blitz, then a play for the ages by Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Cooper Kupp.
“Never second guess,” coach Bruce Arians said after the game.
Second guess? Every detail of this finish will be forever guessed. That’s just the price of admission when you reach this level of the NFL playoffs.
The Bucs had been given a George Bailey-like second chance to win this game after a series of blunders by the Rams led to a 27-27 tie, and they chose to return the favor by imploding in dramatic fashion.
It began after outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett pressured Stafford and ran him right into the arms of defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul for a 1-yard sack on first down, forcing the Rams to use their last timeout.
On second down from their 24, the Rams lined up three receivers on the left and two on the right. Kupp was in the slot on the left side between Van Jefferson and tight end Tyler Higbee.
When the ball was snapped, cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting got his hands briefly on Kupp as Kupp ran at a slight angle toward the middle of the field. Just as Kupp was preparing to cut toward the sideline, Murphy-Bunting’s right foot caught the back of Kupp’s left leg and the defender went down in a heap.
Kupp was left completely open for a 20-yard reception and got out of bounds to stop the clock.
“That was the biggest play, in my opinion,” Arians said Monday. “We’ve got two-deep safeties and man-to-man underneath and we fall down and trip. That was a bigger play, I think, than the last one.”
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The Rams, Arians said, were now 12 yards from field-goal range, which led to the zero-blitz gamble on the next play call. But that’s an extreme version of events.
Rams kicker Matt Gay’s longest field goal of the season was 55 yards and the longest of his career was 58 yards in 2019. He had come up short on a 47-yard field goal in that same direction just minutes earlier. Realistically, the Bucs needed to keep the Rams from gaining roughly 20 yards, which still would have left Gay looking at a 53-yarder.
Instead, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles called for a zero-blitz, which meant Murphy-Bunting would rush the quarterback, along with Suh, Pierre-Paul, Barrett, defensive lineman Vita Vea and inside linebacker Devin White, leaving every defensive back in one-on-one coverage.
“I didn’t understand that last defensive call by the Bucs. All out blitz???” NBC broadcaster and former Bucs head coach Tony Dungy posted on Twitter on Sunday evening. “Why not just sit back let them complete a 15 yd pass in bounds and the game would go to overtime.”
The call was complicated by the Rams remaining in hurry-up mode, even though the clock was stopped. The Bucs seemed unsure about assignments with safety Mike Edwards rushing across the field in a vain attempt to cover Higbee.
Murphy-Bunting was lined up across from Kupp on the right side, but broke for Stafford when the ball was snapped. That left safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who was about 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage, in a footrace with the NFL’s leading receiver.
Kupp blew past Winfield who was still trying to backpedal while his opponent was running at full speed. Arians suggested the pass rush did not get the job done, but it appears Stafford simply read the situation and got rid of the ball incredibly fast.
In retrospect, this was not a shock. The NFL’s NextGen stats had Stafford as the No. 1 passer in the league against the blitz with a ridiculous 139.6 passer rating in those situations.
Murphy-Bunting may have been slow to get into the backfield but Suh had beaten his man up the middle and knocked Stafford to the ground just as the pass was unloaded.
“When you run the play that we ran, obviously you (can) see there is no middle-of-the-field safety,” White said. “At the end of the day, it was a 50/50 chance that it was going to be an overthrow or his guy was going to make a play for him. So that’s what he did.”
Kupp hauled the ball in for a 44-yard reception, a spike stopped the clock, and instead of a pressure-filled kick from 50 yards or more, Gay had a chip-shot field goal of 30 yards for the victory.
You could bemoan the fact that the Bucs were playing without Tristan Wirfs and Chris Godwin in the finale, but the reality is they were in position to win Sunday. They were in position to host the NFC Championship Game, and they were in position to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
When you think about it, that’s a heck of an achievement.
Unfortunately, it will also be a heck of a burden to recall.
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