RAMS (12-5) vs. BUCCANEERS (13-4)
When: Sunday, noon
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa
TV/radio: Channel 4; 710 AM, 93.1 FM, 1330 AM (Spanish)
Line: Books by 3
Notable injury designations: Rams: LT Andrew Whitworth (knee) and S Taylor Rapp (concussion) are out; RB Buddy Howell (hamstring) is doubtful. Bucs: RB Ronald Jones (ankle) and WR Breshad Perriman (hip/abdomen) are out; WR Cyril Grayson (hamstring), RT Tristan Wirfs (ankle), C Ryan Jensen (ankle), OLB Jason Pierre-Paul (personal reasons) and CB Sean Murphy-Bunting (hanstring) are questionable.
What’s at stake? Having made the Cardinals look like playoff imposters, the Rams go on the road and face a real challenge, trying to knock out the defending Super Bowl champions. If they do, the Rams will advance to the NFC title game for the second time in four years. Tom Brady and the Bucs aim to get closer to being the first repeat Super Bowl winners since Brady and the Patriots in the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
Who’s better? This season’s Rams have been trying to emulate the 2020 Bucs by winning the Super Bowl on home turf (SoFi Stadium, Feb. 13) in their first season with a new star quarterback. They’re still looking up at the Bucs, but have cause for confidence after beating them in the regular season two years in a row. Football Outsiders analytics rank the Bucs No. 1 on offense and No. 9 on defence, the Rams No. 8 and No. 5.
Matchup to watch: Rams defensive front vs. Bucs offensive line. DT Aaron Donald, OLB Von Miller and OLB Leonard Floyd have to put pressure on Brady for the Rams to have a chance to stop Tampa Bay. The Bucs’ O-line injuries could be a factor.
Rams win if… If QB Matthew Stafford continues to be effective against blitzing defenses; the Bucs brought blitzes on a league-high 40.8% of dropbacks this season. If the offensive line, with LT Joe Noteboom replacing Whitworth, makes holes for RBs Cam Akers and Sony Michel against a team that was merely average in run defense. If Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris stays one jump ahead of Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and isn’t predictable in doing the same things that worked in September.
Fantasy pick: Rams WR Cooper Kupp. The receiving Triple Crown winner has 29 catches, 362 yards and three touchdowns vs. Tampa Bay in regular-season games the past three years. Needing to match the Bucs’ offense, you know where Stafford will look first.
Prediction: Bucs 26, Rams 24. The Rams might pay the price for blowing their regular-season finale and slipping from second to fourth seed, which is what makes this a road game instead of a home game. Imagine it comes down to a late Rams drive, and the crowd is making communication hard. This should be a tight game between teams whose last three meetings have been won by the underdog.