If the LA Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers do meet in the 2021 NFL Playoffs, they will have just barely missed their 20-year postseason anniversary. Maybe if the Rams and Bucs duke it out in the NFC Championship in a few months, they’ll also score more than a combined 10 points.
This Sunday, the defending champion Bucs fly cross country — just as the Rams did for a primetime win last season — to face LA in their (almost)brand new $5 billion home stadium. It will be the 27th meeting between the two franchises, but also the third between Sean McVay and Bruce Arians in the last three years.
The Rams have won six of their last seven games against Tampa, with the lone exception being the 55-40 monstrosity between Jared Goff and Jameis Winston two years ago. That 95-point affair is much different than the two times that these franchises have met after the regular season.
Legendary USC coach John McKay became the Bucs’ first head coach in 1976 and led the team to a 7-37 record over his initial three seasons in the NFL, with a little bit of improvement each year. Then in 1979, Tampa had the number one defense in the NFL, holding four of their opponents to six points or less, including Los Angeles during a 21-6 Bucs win in Week 4.
The Bucs finished 10-6, then defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 24-17 in the divisional round, setting up an NFC Championship against the Rams, a team that had rebounded from a 4-5 start to finish 9-7 and sneak into the playoffs despite a loss to end the year. Facing the Dallas Cowboys in round one, Rams QB Vince Ferragamo found Billy Waddy for a game-winning 50-yard touchdown pass with the game in the final two-and-a-half minutes.
The NFC Championship setup was basically the team with the number one defense against a team that by most stretches of the imagination was simply mediocre, but the truth is that there was not a wide gap between “average” and “great” in the NFC in 1979; the Rams barely made the playoffs, but they were also only two wins shy of being the number one seed.
Therefore, the NFC Championship game kind of went exactly as expected, as both sides struggled to score and neither touched the end zone a single time that day. Ferragamo went 12-of-23 for 163 yards, but Cullen Bryant and Wendell Tyler combined for 192 rushing yards to lead LA to a 9-0 victory to send the Rams to the Super Bowl.
Bucs QBs, including future Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams, combined to go 5-of-27 passing.
If you’re curious to see what a 9-0 game in 1979 looks like:
The Rams faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, and despite a 13-10 halftime lead, lost the game 31-17.
But the NFC Championship game rematch was coming, you only had to wait two decades.
On January 23, 2000, the Greatest Show on Turf welcomed the Toughest Defense on Earth, hosting the Bucs in the NFC Championship after an unforgettable season of going 13-3 and leading the NFL in nearly every offensive category that matters. The Rams scored 49 points in their divisional round win over the Vikings and were looking every bit of the part of “most dangerous offense.”
The Buccaneers went 11-5 under fourth-year head coach Tony Dungy, but had been a top-three defense for three seasons in a row. Tampa allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the NFL (11 TDs, 21 INTs) and four times held an opponent to six points or less. In their divisional round game they also played the part as expected, beating Washington 14-13 and allowing only 10 first downs the entire game.
What does a Rams-Bucs NFC Championship game look like 20 years later? You can watch that game too. Spoiler: Rams 11, Bucs 6.
Over the course of their two NFC Championship game appearances, these franchises have combined for 26 points. Total. The lone touchdown in the entire eight quarters was a 30-yard pass from Kurt Warner to Ricky Proehl with 4:44 remaining that helped send St. Louis to the Super Bowl.
Up until then, there had been more safeties than touchdowns in these playoff games.
Now we are more than 21 years away from that game and the Rams and Bucs are overdue for their next NFC Championship game. Some are expecting it to happen this season and Sunday’s meeting between Tampa and LA will provide some insight into what that could be like. But despite the offensive firepower that each team brings to the field every week, don’t underestimate the power of the unexpected stalemate.
The truth is that you probably already know a lot about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers right now. They won the Super Bowl and they’re the exact same team that the Rams beat 27-24 last season in Tampa. So I sent five Qs to Gil Arcia of Bucs Nation, but they were all about Tom Brady.
In kind, he sent me five corresponding As.
Q - The Bucs have at least three players with experience of defending a Super Bowl, including many times over for Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, but we also know that no team has repeated since Brady in ‘04. Bruce Arians also has championship experience on his resume. Has there been anything different about the approach Tampa Bay has taken towards a title defense and is there anything that Brady is doing to help guide all the players who just won a ring for the first time?
Gil Arcia = The one thing the Tampa Bay organization did for this year was return all the starters from the Super Bowl roster. Sprinkle in the on-field experience of not just Brady and Gronk but many other veteran players the team truly does lean on itself for success. The players have a mentality of not looking ahead or looking back. They came into this with the mindset of it being a new season and erasing last season’s Super Bowl run. Arians and his staff have done a good job keeping the players honest. But it does help when you have a guy like Brady preaching the same thing.
Q - If Bucs fans could only enshrine one player into the Bucs Hall of Fame, would it be Tom Brady? If not, would a second Super Bowl do the trick?
GA - Uh, no. At least not right away. Brady is a Hall of Famer in his own right. Most certainly the first ballot type. Players like Lee Roy Selmon, Ronder Barber, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Mike Alstott, and some others need to go in before Brady. Those guys were part of something big in building up a franchise to become winners or just part of a bad team where they stood out for all the right reasons. Even if let’s say Brady wins a second, or a third, I still wouldn’t put him ahead of those guys. And I’d hope the fans would see and understand why.
Q - What was your favorite Tom Brady play in 2020 and what’s your favorite Brady play of 2021? Could you point to any Tom Brady plays that would make you scratch your head and think, “What was he doing?” or is it all pretty much the right decision with occasional bad luck or poor execution?
GA - Any play where the ball isn’t turned over should be everyone’s favorite. But to be honest, what makes Brady so good and “wows’ folks is his ability to dissect a defense as he is going through his reads. Not only is he cerebral before the snap, but is the same as the play develops. That doesn’t make him perfect, though. There were a couple times last season where he — as some people liked to call it — was Jameis Winston-like, throwing the ball up as he’s going down hoping his receivers would bail him out and that’s most likely because of the offensive weapons available to him. That was cleaned up down the backstretch of 2020 and saw it just once against Green Bay in the playoffs. Hasn’t happened so far in 2021.
Q - We might not see another game this year that has two better players on the field at the same time than Tom Brady and Aaron Donald. You could even up the ante and point out that Jalen Ramsey, Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski, and Chris Godwin being on the field at the same time as them is also pretty special. Many people may have forgotten Brady and Tampa’s abysmal game against the Saints last season (0 TD, 3 INT) but his second-worst performance came against the Rams, which was also the game with his lowest Y/A and lowest comp% in 2020. If you take away two of Brady’s weapons, is that the way to get to Brady? How did teams get to Brady?
GA - The thing about the Buccaneers offense is that there are truly other targets outside of just those three. Yes, they are who they are for a reason. But Tampa Bay still has some good running backs in Ronald Jones II, Leonard Fournette, and Giovani Bernard as well as crazy depth at receiver with Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller, and Tyler Johnson (who all contributed in the Bucs Super Bowl run). You can also factor in the tight ends in Cameron and OJ Howard. This thing about last year’s matchup was that the Buccaneers didn’t start piecing things together until the second half of the following week against the Chiefs. Tampa Bay hasn’t lost since.
Q - Rather than a score prediction, how about a different number: What age will Tom Brady be when he retires from playing football?
GA - Perhaps 70? I don’t know. At this rate the government may want to take some DNA samples and see if he’s truly human. But he may have already made his way playing for the majority of the league at that point. (I’ll still throw my score prediction in here: Rams win 33-26, snap Bucs win streak dating back to last season.)
Thank you, Gil Arcia of Bucs Nation.
Now a question for you: Will the Bucs and Rams meet in the NFC Championship game again this year?