View Original Notice ? Alexander: As playoff victories go, Rams’ triumph over Bucs was bizarre
There are two ways to look at Rams 30, Tampa Bay 27. Maybe even more, but two in particular.
One was the way Rams coach Sean McVay and selected players spun it in the post-game press conference: Resilience, shrugging off second-half adversity and making plays. “You gotta find a way to close it out and win,” Aaron Donald said, and you have to acknowledge the Rams did so. Somehow.
The other tack? How on earth is a team that has blown 38 points worth of leads in the last three weeks going to keep this up for two more games and win a Super Bowl, especially when the team that wiped out the first of those leads is going to be right back in SoFi Stadium next Sunday evening for the NFC Championship Game and probably will have a lot of its fans on hand as backup?
The Rams get another shot at the San Francisco 49ers, and if you’re a glass-half-full Rams fan, maybe this time it’s set up for a delightful ending for Los Angeles, waiting until the most painful moment to crush the hopes of their neighbors to the north. (If they do, will their fans chant “Just like baseball,” the way a college rooting section might do?)
But when the Rams coughed up a 17-0 lead to the 49ers in the regular-season finale Jan. 9 to bump themselves from the No. 2 seed to No. 4, that was a plain old-fashioned disintegration, compounded by the fact it was the sixth straight 49ers win in the series.
The gremlins in the Rams’ heads might have receded last week when they pounded the Cardinals early and didn’t let up. But Sunday in Tampa Bay, when the Rams surrendered a 27-3 lead before Matt Stafford, Cooper Kupp and then Matt Gay saved them in the final 30 seconds, at times it descended into the Theater of the Bizarre.
Imagine, in the second half of a playoff game, a team amassing a big lead and then losing fumbles by Cooper Kupp and Cam Akers, and almost another when Stafford cradled the ball after it came loose on a sack. Plus a turnover on an errant snap that quarterback Stafford obviously wasn’t expecting, on the first play after the Rams had forced a turnover of their own. Plus a 47-yard field goal by Gay that was on target but short. Plus a coverage breakdown by Jalen Ramsey that led to a 53-yard touchdown reception by the Bucs’ Mike Evans.
Now imagine doing all of that against a Tom Brady team. As the second half proceeded, was everyone in the viewing audience obsessing over the numbers 28 and 3, as in the Super Bowl deficit Brady’s Patriots wiped out against Atlanta in 2017? Announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth helpfully brought it up just before halftime, probably not anticipating that storyline would take over the second half. Or maybe they did.
And now imagine doing all of that against a Brady team and still winning, and moreover handing Brady his first divisional-round defeat.
That lends credence to the resiliency explanation.
“There’s no style points in the playoffs,” McVay said. “You either go home or you advance. And I’m so proud of this group.
“I said, ‘This has got to be a dream,’ just seeing (those miscues). But our guys just kept battling. The defense, after a lot of the bad situations the offense put our guys in, just kept responding. And then … (the Bucs) ended up tying it up and the offense responded.”
And yes, McVay acknowledged, there are a lot of things to clean up. “But it’s a lot easier to clean up after you get it done,” he said.
Basically, the entire second half involved short-term memory if you were a Ram.
Akers had lost a fumble at the end of the first half after the Rams had gotten to the Tampa Bay 6, costing them a chance to pad their lead. He carried the ball 13 times in the second half without incident – but also without much success, just 21 yards – but he lost another fumble at his own 23 with 2:25 left while trying to protect a 27-20 lead, when Ndamukong Suh stripped the ball loose. That set up the Bucs’ tying score (and probably had the second-guessers wondering why Sony Michel wasn’t in the game instead).
Kupp, who had a 70-yard touchdown reception play at the start of the second quarter, had fumbled the ball away on the first play of a possession late in the third, and that also led to a Tampa Bay touchdown. Early in the fourth, on the very next play after Von Miller had stripped the ball away from Brady and recovered it at the Tampa Bay 25, Stafford literally wasn’t looking when Brian Allen snapped the ball. It sailed to the Rams’ 45, where Jason Pierre-Paul pounced on it. That one, at least, did no immediate damage on the scoreboard.
Maybe it was fitting, then, that the dagger the Rams eventually stuck into Tampa Bay’s chances of a championship repeat was wielded by Stafford and Kupp, and that it was a route referred to in Rams’ terminology as “Love Of The Game.”
It means “You’re really never getting the ball,” Stafford said. “You’re just clearing out some area, working for other routes.” A decoy, basically.
But when the Bucs brought the house on the pass rush, and Kupp was one-on-one with Bucs’ cornerback Antoine Winfield and got a couple of steps on him, “Love Of The Game” turned into “Win The Game,” a 44-yard play to set up Gay’s winning field goal.
STAFFORD FINDS COOPER KUPP. UNBELIEVABLE.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 23, 2022
So let’s go ahead and settle on resilience as the appropriate explanation. For now.
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