TAMPA, Florida — Rams kicker Matt Gaye slipped inside the left post as the last four seconds of the game expired, giving Los Angeles a 30-27 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday and qualifying for the NFC Championship Game where they will take San Francisco. Francisco 49ers, who eliminated the Green Bay Packers on Saturday.
The Rams’ lead, which had increased to 24 points, evaporated late in the game when Buccaneers running back Leonard Furnett scored a game-tying touchdown on the drive leading up to the game-winning shot.
But Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, after nearly dropping the ball on the first down, connected with Cooper Kupp on a 44-yard pass two plays later and then led his team to the line of scrimmage to score and set Gaye’s field goal. .
Kupp led the Rams’ receivers with nine catches for 183 yards, while Odell Beckham Jr. added 69 yards to six catches.
It was a decisive and quick game-ending streak, and the only one that benefited the Rams. Too often this season, Stafford, despite impressive passing numbers and arm strength, has hurt the Rams’ offense with costly losses, especially late in the game.
Stafford tied Jaguars rookie Trevor Lawrence for the league lead with 17 steals this season, and his interception, which ended overtime in the Rams’ Week 18 loss to San Francisco, gave the 49ers a playoff berth.
The Rams sold precious draft equity to acquire Stafford ahead of this season in the hope that he could be the catalyst for a Super Bowl run, but his flair followed him to Los Angeles after 12 seasons as a Detroit Lions quarterback, where he had at least 10 steals in all but one season and never won a playoff game.
But on a crucial stretch of the journey, Stafford discovered that Kupp was in a quandary. He did not hold the ball and played in overtime. He didn’t flip the ball. And he beat outfield quarterback Tom Brady, who is much more accustomed to late-game heroism.
Stafford finished the day with 366 yards on 28 of 38 passes and three touchdowns.
“He definitely showed himself on a grand scale today,” Rams head coach Sean McVeigh said when asked if Sunday’s performance was the reason the team signed Stafford. “I have always had great confidence in Matthew. It never wavered.”
It was Brady who threw the only interception of the game, breaking the Buccaneers’ possession near the end of the first half, and it was Brady who lost his cool under pressure. In a disastrous first half, he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for the first time in his career after complaining to officials that Rams midfielder von Miller punched him in the face in the second quarter.
The flag appeared in the midst of Brady and the Pirates’ most productive game to date. Brady converted 2nd and 17th from the Rams’ 50-yard line to find Leonard Furnett with a 19-yard lead, but the drive stalled after three games. Ryan Succop missed a 48-yard field goal to leave the score 17-3. The Rams hit a field goal and went to halftime at 20–3.
In an attempt to defend last year’s championship win, Tampa Bay brought back all 22 of its players from last season’s team for the first time in an era of salary caps. The Buccaneers re-signed Chris Godwin, one of the most popular free agents of the offseason, and also brought back Antonio Brown, whom Brady lobbied for the team to sign last season.
However, neither player was available to Brady for Sunday’s game as Godwin tore his anterior cruciate ligament during the regular season and Brown was released by the team in December. Another high-profile player on the team, defenseman Richard Sherman, was placed on injured reserve with an Achilles injury.
These losses, coupled with the fact that the Pirates did not have All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs, manifested themselves in defensive problems in the passing game and inefficiency in attack. Tampa Bay only converted three of their 14 third downs.
But Brady was by this point in his career an absolute postseason advantage, and in the second half it looked like the 44-year-old quarterback, known for late-game heroism, could lead to another dramatic postseason comeback.
The Rams extended their lead to 27–3 on a Stafford 1-yard touchdown early in the third quarter, and Tampa Bay struggled to return with a field goal. But Kupp found the first pass on the next possession, giving the Pirates new life and a short field.
Starting at the Rams’ 30-yard line, Brady set up a seven-game touchdown that was marked when Furnett, who played in his first game since Week 15 after returning from injured reserve, hit a ball from the 1-yard line.
The teams traded fumbles in consecutive games to start the fourth quarter, with Brady losing the ball after Miller hit him again and Rams center Brian Allen fiddling with the snap. Clinging to their two-possession lead, Los Angeles caused Tampa Bay to lose the ball twice on late-game downs.
With less than five minutes remaining in the game, Brady passed to receiver Mike Evans, who was covered one-on-one by Rams star guard Jalen Ramsey. Evans passed for 55 yards to cut the lead to 27-20.
Cam Akers fumbled the Rams’ subsequent possession, giving Brady another short field. He capitalized on another touchdown punctuated by Furnett’s run to tie the score, 27–27, with 42 seconds left.
But then Stafford took over and ended the Brady and Buccaneers season.
Brady finished with 329 yards on 30 of 54 passes on one interception.
The loss raises questions about what’s in store for Tampa Bay. A week before the game, as in previous postseasons, Brady answered questions about whether he could retire after this season as his contract runs until the end of the 2022 season. After Sunday’s loss, Brady told reporters he “didn’t give much thought” to how he would handle this offseason.
Before Sunday afternoon, it might have looked like he would have more time to confront the potential client. Stafford made sure not.