The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play host to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday afternoon from Raymond James Stadium in a rematch of the Rams' week three win, 34-24. With a spot in the NFC Championship on the line, both sides will have their work cut out for them to end up on top. In that first matchup, the Rams jumped out to a 14-7 lead and then used a strong third quarter to pull away and finish the job, though the Buccs had more total yards in that one. The Rams won six of their last seven, setting the tone as one of the hottest teams in the NFL. For the Buccs, they've strung together four straight wins and have won eight of their last nine games overall. Sunday afternoon's tilt should pit two teams against each other who have true Super Bowl aspirations and could be the most entertaining game of the weekend.
Rams Have Eyes On Return Trip To NFC Title GameIt was only a few years ago when the Rams found themselves a few plays away from winning the Super Bowl but after a few down years, they find themselves once again looking like they have a shot at coming away with the trophy. Since a cold spell in the middle of the season, the Rams have found their form but it has also come with an easy portion of the schedule happening. Over their last seven games, including last week's playoff game, the Rams only had three games against playoff teams. Two of those against the Cardinals, both wins, and the other an overtime loss to the 49ers. Now having to take on the Buccs, especially across the country in Tampa Bay, could prove to be a difficult situation.
The Rams have the advantage of coming into this one pretty healthy overall. Being without Robert Woods (knee) hasn't seemed to drastically impact the offense but they do have four players questionable for the weekend whose status will need to be monitored. Andrew Whitworth is dealing with an ankle injury, while Taylor Rapp (concussion) joins him. In addition, Buddy Howell (hamstring), David Long Jr. (knee), and Ben Skowronek (back) have been ruled as questionable as well.
Even though the Rams grabbed the win in the first matchup, they'll need to find some more balance to find success in the rematch. They only had 76 rushing yards in the first meeting and will be looking for the offenive line to pave the way in this one in an effort to control the clock. With Tampa Bay's defense ranking third in the league against the run, this could be difficult. The key for the Rams continues to be through the air, where they have the league's fifth-best rushing attack, against a struggling Tampa Bay secondary.
The key for the Rams all season was for Matthew Stafford to stay away from turnovers and in the playoff opener, he did just that. He tossed for two touchdowns and no interceptions, with an impressive rating. If he can replicate that success, the Rams will be in at the end. Expect Sony Michel to get the majority of touches out of the backfield but the Rams pride themselves on their receiving corps. Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. remain one of the best duos in the league and Kupp will be looking to build on the two touchdowns from the last time these two teams met.
Defensively, the Rams thrived in the first matchup, allowing only 35 yards on the ground to the Buccs. The secondary wasn't quite as strong, allowing over 400 yards to Brady through the air but their defense refused to break on multiple occasions. Stopping the run with the league's sixth-ranked running defense will be key to trying to control the game. Considering the star money and value on the defensive side, there are no other options except for the Rams to find success.
Buccs Looking For RevengeEven though Tampa Bay may have lost the initial matchup this season between the two teams, quite a bit of time has passed since the initial matchup with the Rams and the Buccs have some confidence going on both sides of the ball. Of their last eight games, the only loss came to the Saints in what now seems like something out of the ordinary for this team. With wins against the Colts and Bills, as well as the Eagles last week, there is expected to be some transition early against a high-flying offense. In the first meeting, the Buccs struggled to move the ball on the ground and even though the air raid was productive, they'll need far more balance on the offensive side of things.
The Buccaneers don't have many injuries but they do seem to have some impactful ones. The passing game continues to miss Chris Godwin (knee and the secondary is miss Richard Sherman (Achilles) for his experience and depth. With the need for improving the running game, Leonard Fournette (hamstring) and Ronald Jones (ankle) both being questionable isn't ideal. The other key player whose status to monitor is Tristan Wirfs (ankle), who has been a mainstay on the offensive line but is questionable.
In the first matchup, running the ball was a major issue for the Buccs, and even with only 35 yards, they still nearly controlled the possession and only lost by ten points. Just a moderately improved rushing attack should see them control possession slightly more. The passing game remains far from a concern, ranking first in the league in passing yards per game. Overall, they're second in total yardage and second in scoring, with the hope that the defense can limit the Rams more than last time or compete in a shootout.
Tom Brady continues to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league this season and in the first playoff game, didn't miss a beat, tossing for 271 yards and two touchdowns. Even with the injuries/absences at wide reciever, Mike Evans remains a difficult matchup for the Rams, while Rob Gronkowski will be expected to see a few more targets go his way this weekend. The key will be the running game though and finding consistency there, though much of that depends on who gets the starting nod.
Defensively, Tampa Bay has one of the best run defenses in the league, which should go a long way to them finding quite a bit more control over this game. The concerns are in the secondary though, especially in regards to stopping the speed and athleticism of the Rams. They rank 21st in passing defense and 13th in total defense but it remains to be seen who will draw the assignment of slowing down Kupp.