TAMPA, Fla. — Rams kicker Matt Gay’s kick snuck into the left post as the final four seconds of the game elapsed, giving Los Angeles a 30-27 win over Tampa Bay on Sunday to seal the NFC championship game reach where they will host the San Francisco 49ers who eliminated the Green Bay Packers on Saturday.
The Rams’ lead, which had grown to as much as 24 points, dwindled late in the game when Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette scored the crucial touchdown on the drive that preceded the crucial kick.
But Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, after nearly losing the ball on the first down, connected with a 44-yard pass with Cooper Kupp two games later and then pushed his team to the scrimmage line to spike the ball and Gays Prepare field goal.
Kupp led Rams receiver with nine catches for 183 yards, and Odell Beckham Jr. added 69 yards on six catches.
It was a crucial and quick streak to end the game and the only one that went the way of the Rams. Despite his impressive passing numbers and arm strength, Stafford had hurt the Rams’ offense far too often this season with costly turnovers, especially late in games.
Stafford brought Jaguars rookie Trevor Lawrence to the top of the league with 17 interceptions this season, and his interception to end overtime in the Rams’ Week 18 loss to San Francisco earned the 49ers their place in the playoffs.
The Rams had traded valuable draft capital to acquire Stafford prior to this season in hopes he could catalyze a Super Bowl run, but his penchant for turning the ball followed him to Los Angeles after 12 seasons as quarterback for the Detroit Lions , where he was He threw at least 10 interceptions in all but one season and never won a playoff game.
But in a crucial sector, Stafford found Kupp on a blown cover route. He failed to keep the ball and played into overtime. He didn’t turn the ball over. And he defeated quarterback on the other side of the field, Tom Brady, who is much more used to late-game heroics.
Stafford ended the day with 366 yards on 28 of 38 passes and three total touchdowns.
“He did a really great job today,” said Sean McVay, the Ram’s head coach, when asked if Sunday’s performance was the reason the team signed Stafford. “I’ve always had great faith in Matthew. That has never wavered.”
It was Brady who threw the only interception of the game, ending the Buccaneers’ possession late in the first half, and it was Brady who lost his cool under pressure. In a disastrous first half, he was flagged for the first time in his career for unsportsmanlike conduct after complaining to officials about being punched in the face by Rams linebacker Von Miller in the second quarter.
The flag came amid Brady and the Buccaneers’ most prolific drive in the game up to that point. Brady had converted from the Rams’ 50-yard line on the second and 17th and found Leonard Fournette for a 19-yard gain, but the drive stalled three games later. Ryan Succop missed the 48-yard field goal attempt to keep it 17-3. The Rams kicked a field goal and went into halftime 20-3.
In an attempt to defend last year’s championship win, Tampa Bay brought back all 22 of its starters from last season’s team, a first in the salary cap era. The Buccaneers re-signed Chris Godwin, one of the biggest free agent targets of the offseason, and also brought back Antonio Brown, who Brady backed for the team last season.
However, none of the players were available for Brady in Sunday’s game due to Godwin tearing his anterior cruciate ligament during the regular season and Brown being fired by the team in December. Another high-profile addition to the team, defenseman Richard Sherman, was placed on injured reserve with an Achilles injury.
Those losses, coupled with the Buccaneers being without their all-pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs, manifested themselves in passing protection issues and offensive inefficiency. Tampa Bay converted only three of 14 third downs.
But Brady was the ultimate postseason advantage up to this point in his career, and in the second half it looked like the 44-year-old quarterback known for his late-game heroics could make another dramatic postseason comeback to lead
The Rams extended their lead on Stafford’s 1-yard touchdown run to 27-3 early in the third quarter, and Tampa Bay struggled to respond with a field goal. But Kupp fumbled with the first pass for the next ball possession, giving the Buccaneers new momentum and a tight field.
Starting from the Rams 30-yard line, Brady orchestrated a seven-play touchdown drive that was cut short when Fournette, playing in his first game since Week 15 after returning from injured reserve, caught the ball from 1- yard line off.
The teams traded fumbles in back-to-back games to start the fourth quarter, with Brady losing the ball after being hit again by Miller and Rams center Brian Allen, who fumbled the snap. Los Angeles held on to their two-possession lead, forcing two turnovers at Tampa Bay late in the game.
With less than five minutes left, Brady heaved a pass to receiver Mike Evans, who was covered one-on-one by Rams star defense Jalen Ramsey. Evans collected the pass for a 55-yard score that cut the lead to 27-20.
Cam Akers fumbled with the Rams’ subsequent possession and gave Brady another short field. He used another touchdown drive interrupted by a fournette run to level the score at 27-27 with 42 seconds remaining.
But then Stafford took over and ended Brady and the Buccaneers’ season.
Brady finished with an interception for 329 yards on 30 of 54 passes.
The loss raises questions about what lies ahead for Tampa Bay. In the week leading up to the game, as in previous postseasons, Brady raised questions about retiring after this season as his contract runs through the end of the 2022 season. After Sunday’s loss, Brady told reporters that he hadn’t “given much thought” to how he would approach this offseason.
Before Sunday afternoon, it seemed like he’d have more time to face the prospect. Stafford made sure he didn’t.