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Rams vs Bucs: Who’s the NFC’s sleeping giant?

Both teams have huge concerns but also reasons for optimism

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Los Angeles Rams v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Rams are 3-0 against Tom Brady since he went to the NFC in 2020, and in general they have won eight of their last nine games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with five of those wins coming in Tampa. That’s where the Rams are headed this Sunday for a matchup between the two most-recent Super Bowl champions.

And the two biggest disappointments in the NFC.

The Rams are 3-4 in their quest to “run it back” and the Bucs are 3-5 in the wake of Brady’s highly-publicized breakup and divorce. L.A. could have slightly less cause for concern if they lose this game, as they will “only” be 3-5, same record as the Bucs right now. They would also be left with two more opportunities to beat the 5-3 Seattle Seahawks this year, a team that Sean McVay and Aaron Donald routinely get the better of.

The “good” news for Tampa Bay if they lose is that the NFC South is currently being led the by the 4-4 Atlanta Falcons, and the other two teams in the division are being quarterbacked by Andy Dalton and P.J. Walker. If Brady can’t win a division over Marcus Mariota and those two, especially after two decades of dominating the AFC East, perhaps this really is the end of his road in the NFL.

But a loss would also make the Bucs 3-6 and Brady would be in desperation mode over his last eight games. Do anything worse than 7-1 and Brady could miss the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

(I wish I didn’t have to write this but since somebody is going to write the comment if I don’t... Yes, Brady technically missed the playoffs when he tore his ACL in the first game in 2008.)

But whether the Rams are 3-5 or the Bucs are 3-6, the season won’t be over for the loser of this game. And there will still be plenty left to fix for whoever wins.

Both the Rams and the Bucs could still make the playoffs. The leader of the NFC South is 4-4. The second-best team in the NFC North is 3-5. The second-best team in the NFC West is 4-4. Matthew Stafford and Tom Brady are both recent Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.

Teams that made the playoffs:

In 2015, the Steelers started 4-4 but reached the AFC Championship. The Chiefs started 1-5 but made the divisional round of the playoffs.

In 2016, the Dolphins started 1-4 but made the playoffs.

In 2017, the Jaguars started 3-3 but reached the AFC Championship. The Falcons started 4-4 but reached the divisional round.

In 2018, the Cowboys started 3-5 but reached the divisional round. The Colts started 1-5 but reached the divisional round.

In 2019, the Titans started 4-5 but reached the AFC Championship.

In 2020, Washington started 2-7 but reached the playoffs.

Last year, the 49ers started 2-4 and 3-5 and 6-6, but reached the NFC Championship. The Chiefs started 3-4 but reached the AFC Championship.

Being 3-6 or 3-5 is not a death knell. But which team is more likely to rebound?

Analytics favors the Bucs

Despite their 3-5 record, Tampa Bay is currently eighth in the DVOA rankings. As posted in my analytics roundup on Wednesday, the Rams are 24th.

Tampa Bay still has the fifth ranked defense in the NFL by DVOA and it is their 18th-ranked offense that is holding them back. The biggest issue for both teams being the run game: The Rams are 26th by DVOA, while the Bucs are 31st.

The Rams are 31st in yards per carry and the Bucs are 32nd. But the respective quarterbacks have both played similar to how they have in recent campaigns, with the one main difference being their inability to find the end zone so far:

  • Tom Brady has nine touchdowns and only one interception on the season. He has the lowest rate of picks in the NFL (he hasn’t thrown an interception since Week 1), but where is the usual explosiveness? Brady’s 6.7 yards per attempt is his lowest since 2019, which was his lowest at the time since 2013. The only time he’s ever been lower was the 6.3 Y/A average he had in 2002, but Brady led the NFL in touchdowns that year too. Brady is on pace to throw 19 touchdowns and two interceptions. Brady had 40 touchdowns in 2020 and 43 touchdowns in 2021.
  • Matthew Stafford has seven touchdowns and eight interceptions. He’s actually “only” had three interceptions in his last five starts, but also only three touchdowns. For the season, Stafford is on pace for 17 touchdowns and 19 interceptions and it’s not the picks that are concerning. Stafford led the NFL in interceptions last year with 17. No, it’s the touchdowns. Stafford had 41 touchdowns last year, so he’s not even on pace to have half that amount. Stafford is averaging 6.8 Y/A, tying his lowest career mark for any season besides his rookie campaign.

Both quarterbacks have retained their top receiving weapons, but Stafford hasn’t found an adequate replacement for Robert Woods/OBJ.

Brady still has Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, but hasn’t developed a connection with free agent signee Russell Gage or found a replacement for tight end Rob Gronkowski. Tampa’s top tight end is rookie Cade Otton, who has 18 catches for 178 yards and no touchdowns. Evans has three touchdowns, while Godwin has yet to score.

Last year, Evans scored 14 touchdowns, with six for Gronkowski and five for Godwin.

In 2020, Evans scored 13 touchdowns, with seven each for Godwin and Gronkowski. Even Antonio Brown scored eight times over 15 games with Brady from 2020-2021.

But the Bucs are just 25th in points per drive this year, 29th in red zone scoring, and 25th in third down conversion rate.

However, the Bucs started 7-5 in 2020, then won the Super Bowl by winning their last eight games, including playoffs. The Bucs were 6-3 last season, then won eight of nine games prior to falling to the Rams in the divisional round.

It seems like the Buccaneers have a lot of the pieces in place and a good defense. And three of their five losses have been by five points or less, while one of the other two losses came against Patrick Mahomes. It’s only the weird loss to the Panthers that sticks out, but weird things happen in divisional games.

But the Rams have lost all four games by at least 12 points. They’ve lost to good teams, like the Bills and Cowboys, but also L.A.’s struggles against Kyle Shanahan are the only reason that the 49ers are 4-4 instead of 2-6. The Rams are losing by a lot and their wins have come against three teams with losing records: Falcons, Cardinals, Panthers.

Luckily, Tampa Bay also has a losing record. If the Rams can win this game, they’ll be back at .500 and have so much time left to look like a defending Super Bowl champion. They could emerge from the ashes and be a formidable team again in January.

Or it could be the Bucs, in typical Tom Brady fashion, saving the best for last.

Who do you see as the sleeping giant?