2021 NFL playoffs: What we learned from Rams' win over Buccaneers in Divisional Round

Los Angeles Rams
2021 · 12-5-0
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2021 · 13-4-0

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  1. Matthew Stafford has one big pass to shove in the face of his doubters. The Rams did everything they could to allow the Buccaneers back into Sunday's Divisional Round showdown and watched their 24-point lead melt away, but in the biggest moment of his career, Stafford stood tall. With Todd Bowles' dialed-up blitz bearing down on him, Stafford found his favorite target, Cooper Kupp, with a 44-yard strike over the middle that set up the Rams with just enough time for a spike and a game-winning field goal. With the walls crashing down around them, Stafford found one way out of the madness, leading the Rams to a thrilling win snatched from the jaws of inexcusable defeat -- or at least a trip to an overtime that no one saw coming. It's a massive, blue and gold feather in the cap of Stafford, who now finds himself in his first conference title game appearance of his career.
  2. The injuries finally caught up to the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay dug itself a 24-point hole by allowing chunk plays on defense and struggling to get anything going offensively. The absence of Tristan Wirfs was noticeable from the start and throughout the afternoon, allowing the Rams to get early and persistent pressure, leading to a 30-of-54 passing day from Tom Brady that included three sacks. The lack of playmakers in the Buccaneers' offense showed, too, with Brady being forced to rely heavily on Mike Evans (eight catches on 16 targets) and Rob Gronkowski (four catches on 11 targets, with one resulting in an interception). Scott Miller stepped up, catching four passes for 38 yards, but too often Tampa Bay's targets either dropped catchable passes or struggled to do much with the ball in their hands. Leonard Fournette broke 100 scrimmage yards and scored twice in his first game back from injured reserve, but the early deficit ultimately proved to be just too much to overcome for the defending champions, who are now headed to the offseason.
  3. The Rams are more than Cooper Kupp, but were nearly vanquished if not for Kupp. Los Angeles has enjoyed a steady increase in importance and production from Odell Beckham Jr., who was an essential part of the Rams' passing game Sunday with six catches for 69 yards. But Beckham's strong day paled in comparison to Kupp's afternoon, which included nine receptions for 183 yards, one touchdown and a massive reception that helped lift the Rams to victory. Instead of spending this space raving about how much Cam Akers (who fumbled twice Sunday) has changed Los Angeles' offense, we'll instead use it to remind the football world of just how good Kupp has been this season. It's only right that he was the one to haul in the two most important completions of the Rams' season. The best part: With his 44-yard reception, Kupp redeemed himself for a fumble lost in the second half. With the help of Stafford, Kupp sent the Rams to the conference title game, set to take place at their home of SoFi Stadium. If they can win that one, they'll stay home for the biggest game of their careers: Super Bowl LVI.
  4. The first game together was a forgettable one for Tampa Bay's defense. The Buccaneers made headlines by returning each of their 22 starters from their Super Bowl LV-winning squad, but didn't get to see their starting 11 on the field at the same time at all during the 2021 season until Sunday. The results were less than stellar. Safety Mike Edwards misplayed his deep-half assignment in Cover 2, allowing Stafford to find a wide-open Kupp for a 70-yard touchdown in a first half filled with a flurry of Rams points. Ndamukong Suh was nailed with a taunting penalty after hitting Stafford in the first half. Devin White abandoned his coverage assignment in the first quarter, leading to a Kendall Blanton receiving touchdown. This wasn't the full scope of mistakes made by the defense, but it did turn things around to keep the Buccaneers alive, forcing an Akers fumble to prevent the Rams from hammering a nail in Tampa Bay's coffin just before halftime and then stripping him late in the fourth to regain possession, leading to the game-tying Fournette touchdown on fourth down. The defense's problems reared their ugly heads one final time, though, when Bowles elected to send the house and only six rushed, with Lavonte David lingering in no-man's land while Stafford launched the deep pass over the head of Antoine Winfield Jr. for the game's most important completion. Tampa Bay fought as hard as possible to get back into the game, but couldn't get a final stop, and will have its many mistakes to look back on while lamenting this heartbreaking loss.
  5. The Rams have cleared one hurdle; another awaits them, and they must be cleaner. With Sunday's win, Los Angeles is headed back to Inglewood for a rubber match with a division rival it has struggled to defeat in the last few years. San Francisco is in the middle of a Cinderella-like run that began with a thrilling comeback win over the Rams at SoFi Stadium in Week 18 just to qualify for the postseason, and the 49ers certainly won't be intimidated by the gravity of the moment ahead. In order to prevent yet another loss to Kyle Shanahan's squad, the Rams will have to be sharper than they were Sunday. That means better ball security from Akers, Kupp and the rest of the Rams' playmakers, and more resiliency in the face of adversity. Oh, and fewer mistakes. Four turnovers won't cut it with an NFC title on the line. Sean McVay's group must be better next weekend if he hopes to reach his second Super Bowl in his head-coaching career.


NFL Research: Cooper Kupp's 183-yard performance marked his 12th game with 100-plus receiving yards this season, tying Hall of Famer Michael Irvin (who did so in 1995) for the most such games in a single season (including playoffs) in NFL history.


Next Gen stat of the game: Von Miller finished with nine quarterback pressures, a sack and two turnovers forced by pressure on 40 pass rushes (22.5 pressure percentage). His nine QB pressures were the third-most in a game for Miller in the Next Gen era, and Sunday was just the second playoff game in the Next Gen era in which a player forced two turnovers via pressure.

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