Sunday’s Divisional Round action kicks off at Raymond James Stadium when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Los Angeles Rams for a Week 3 rematch with much higher stakes.
The Rams announced their legitimacy to the world in Week 3, dominating the defending champs at home. But with home-field advantage reversed, can Matthew Stafford and co. complete a season sweep? Or will Tom Brady add another trip to the conference championship game to his resume? Let’s break it down.
- Opening line: Tampa Bay -3
- Current line: Tampa Bay -3
- Total: 48.5
Buccaneers offense is battered by injuries
Tampa Bay’s injuries on offense are becoming a greater concern by the week. They were already without key skill weapons Chris Godwin and Leonard Fournette heading into last week’s game. The injury bug struck Tampa’s elite offensive line during last Sunday’s win over the Eagles.
Starting center Ryan Jensen and starting right tackle Tristan Wirfs both suffered ankle injuries last weekend. While Jensen was able to participate in practice Thursday, Wirfs remains sidelined. Both players likely won’t be 100% if they even suit up.
A banged-up offensive line is a bad start against a Rams front seven led by Aaron Donald and Von Miller. While Tom Brady is a legend, he does struggle with interior pressure. If Jensen and Wirfs aren’t right, it could give the edge to Los Angeles up front.
The Buccaneers could get Fournette back this week, but it might not make a significant difference for a unit that fell into a bit of a funk following a hot start against Philadelphia. The Bucs clearly miss Godwin, who was an outstanding weapon out of the slot and a great blocker. And while Godwin’s absence wasn’t exposed last week, it could be a big disadvantage against the Rams.
Star cornerback Jalen Ramsey should match up with Mike Evans Sunday, which means the game could come down to how Tampa’s ancillary weapons perform. Rob Gronkowski could find success against an L.A. defense that doesn’t have great linebackers and allowed 90 receptions to opposing tight ends this season. And while Tyler Johnson, Scotty Miller, and Breshad Perriman all got targets, none of them did much with those opportunities.
If Ramsey can take Evans out of the equation, it will allow the Rams to bracket Gronkowski with a safety over the top, leaving Brady with some unproven weapons to throw to while fending off Donald and Miller.
The good news for Tampa Bay is that its defense is fully intact, and it showed in last week’s dominant effort against Jalen Hurts and the Eagles. The Bucs were swarming Philadelphia’s playmakers, recording 10 QB hits and forcing three turnovers. The question will be whether Tampa’s secondary can hold up against Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, and the potent Rams passing game that ranks seventh in DVOA. The Bucs gave up 343 passing yards and four passing touchdowns in the Week 3 loss at SoFi Stadium.
The Rams match up well with Tampa
The Rams match up well with Tampa Bay for a couple of reasons. First, as I mentioned before, they have the game wrecker in Donald who can exploit Brady’s kryptonite: pressure up the middle. The Rams defensive line ranks sixth in adjusted line yards and the unit ranked third in sacks despite getting pressure on just 22.8% of opposing dropbacks. This unit knows how to get home, and could cause trouble for Brady and his banged-up offensive line.
The other reason? Matthew Stafford is one of the league’s best quarterbacks against the blitz. Against Arizona in their blowout victory, Stafford completed seven of nine passes for 148 yards and a touchdown when he was blitzed. But this wasn’t just a one-time blip on the radar. Stafford’s been great against the blitz all year.
This is a trend — Matthew Stafford has been amazing against the blitz.
Finished the season 7th in YPA, 3rd in completion rate, and 1st in fantasy points per attempt vs. the blitz.
Opponents picked up on it and blitzed LAR a league-low 17% of the time. Except the Cardinals… https://t.co/E0L7JkDTNi
— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) January 18, 2022
Want to guess which NFL team has the highest blitz rate? That would be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 40.8%. A heavy blitz is a staple of Todd Bowles’ attacking defense. But he may have to rethink his strategy considering Stafford’s effectiveness against the blitz. The Rams allowed the seventh-fewest sacks in the league this season and only surrendered one in the Week 3 meeting. The Buccaneers will have to generate pressure with four down linemen. Fortunately for them, they have plenty of playmakers who can do so in Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, and Shaq Barrett.
But if Stafford can get the ball out, he should be able to feed Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr., constantly. The Buccaneers secondary is usually masked by its incredible front seven, but that unit could get exposed again in this rematch.
Am I really going to back Matthew Stafford over Tom Brady in a pressure-packed playoff game? You bet. The Rams simply match up well with Tampa Bay. Donald and Miller could give this Bucs offensive line fits. Ramsey can shut down Evans, leaving Brady with Gronk and a bunch of nobodies. And Stafford is great against the blitz and has the weaponry to expose Tampa’s secondary.
And while I have questions about Los Angeles’ roster depth, it isn’t as big of a factor considering Tampa Bay isn’t at full strength right now. That’ll make a difference against a star-laden Rams team.
Brady’s quest for Super Bowl #8 ends here. The Rams complete the season sweep and upset the Bucs.
The pick: Rams +3, Rams moneyline +124
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