The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2021 season, and their hopes to be the NFL's first repeat Super Bowl champion in almost two decades, ended on Sunday with a 30-27 Divisional Round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
The Buccaneers didn't go out without a fight, launching a stunning comeback to turn a 27-3 deficit late in the third quarter into a 27-27 tie with 42 seconds left in regulation on Leonard Fournette's nine-yard fourth-down touchdown run. But Rams QB Matthew Stafford hit WR Cooper Kupp on a 44-yard completion deep over the middle in the game's closing seconds and K Matt Gay ended it with a 30-yard field goal.
"That's obviously not the final we wanted," said Head Coach Bruce Arians, whose team fought to within seconds of the NFC Championship Game despite a long list of injuries, most recently to All-Pro T Tristan Wirfs. "At halftime we knew we could come back and get this thing to where it was. To lose it like that is hard. That locker room of guys has been through hell and back and I love them. They have stuck together through all the injuries and everything else. I'm really proud of the comeback, not the finish. I can't say enough about all of them, the guys who stepped up and stepped in, all the receivers and DBs and everybody else this year that were a part of this journey. It's a shame we didn't complete it."
Had the Buccaneers completed the rally, it would have tied for the fourth-largest comeback victory in the postseason in NFL history. It also would have been the largest comeback in franchise history, regular season or postseason. That was small consolation for the Buccaneers, who were trying to repeat as league champions after their victory in Super Bowl LV last February, but it did show the character of the team.
"It's a tough feeling that we lost in that fashion, but we did the best we could," said CB Jamel Dean. "We fought, we fought back to get back into the game. We made plays but it just wasn't enough. It hurts because we had hopes of going to the Super Bowl again and try to repeat. And then knowing that we were down there and we got back into the game and there was hope…and then seeing them kick the field goal just crushed everything.
A sluggish start by Tampa Bay's offense and Matthew Stafford's early touchdown passes to Kendall Blanton and Cooper Kupp allowed the visiting Rams to build a 20-3 halftime lead, which they expanded to 27-3 on Stafford's TD sneak early in the third quarter. The Buccaneers used four fumble recoveries, three in the second half, to climb back into contention and overcame two failed fourth downs in Los Angeles territory in the fourth quarter. Still down by 14 with under four minutes to play, Tom Brady hit Mike Evans on a stunning 55-yard touchdown pass to make it 27-20. DL Ndamukong Suh then forced a fumble by Rams RB Cam Kaers at the Bucs' 30 with 2:25 to play, leading to Fournette's game-tying run.
"I thought we were going to win at halftime," said ILB Lavonte David, who led the defensive with 11 tackles, a tackle for loss and a fumble recovery. "We were down 20-3 but as we came into the locker room I saw the determination in everyone's eyes. We knew what we had to do to go out there and get back in it, and that's what we did."
The Rams will now play host to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game next Sunday. Los Angeles has a chance to join the 2020 Buccaneers as the only teams in NFL history to qualify for and win a Super Bowl on their own home field, as the final game of the 2021 season will be played in L.A.'s new SoFi Stadium. The Buccaneers were trying to become the first team since the 2003-04 New England Patriots – a squad also led by Tom Brady – to win back-to-back Super Bowls. The Bucs have won 29 of 39 games and the franchise's second league title in the two seasons since Brady chose to leave New England, his home of 20 years and six Super Bow championships, in 2020. Sunday's comeback, which harkened memories of the Patriots' rally from down 28-3 to victory over Atlanta in Super Bowl LI, didn't end in victory but did build on Brady's legend.
"Really, it was the defense getting turnovers," said Arians of the start of the comeback. "A couple of them we didn't cash in on or we would have had the lead at the end. But, yeah, when you've got Tom you're never out of it."
In a repeat of the Buccaneers' Week Three loss to the Rams at SoFi Stadium, the Bucs' offense struggled on third downs early, allowing Stafford and company to pull away early. The Buccaneers had just 133 yards of offense and a single field goal at halftime and had converted on just two of seven third down tries. Brady was sacked once and harrassed often by the Rams' talented defensive front, led by Aaron Donald. However, a forced fumble and recovery by S Antoine Winfield, Jr. on Akers just before halftime kept the Rams from building on their lead and Dean forced a fumble by Kupp that CB Sean Murphy-Bunting recovered in the third quarter, leading to the first of Fournette's two touchdown runs.
The fourth quarter featured a wild run of emotional turns. Early in the period, Brady was sacked by Von Miller – one of three sacks and four hits he endured on the day – losing the football with Miller recovering at the Bucs' 25. That seemed to be a harsh blow to the Bucs' comeback hopes until, moments later, Rams C Brian Allen launched the ball over Stafford's head and Jason Pierre-Paul recovered for Tampa Bay in Rams territory. However, that drive ended without points after Eric Weddle was penalized for unnecessary roughness on a helmet-to-helmet hit on Evans. By rule, that penalty is considered a post-possession foul so the 15-yard walk-off did not convert the Bucs' fourth-and-14 play.
However, Gay then missed a 47-yard field goal short, the Bucs failed on another fourth down in L.A. territory and the defense forced a quick punt, all leading to Brady's downfield strike to Evans, who finished the game with 119 yards and that score on eight catches. In two 2021 postseason games, Evans racked up 17 catches for 236 yards and two scores, becoming the Bucs' all-time leader in playoff receiving yards in the process.
"I'm proud of the guys," said Evans. "I'm proud of the people that stayed in the arena. A lot of people were leaving and then we tied the game up, thought we were going to overtime, and we just didn't get the job done. But we scratched and clawed and they kept giving us the ball and giving us chances and we took advantage of them. We just couldn't get the stop at the end."
Brady overcame the Bucs' slow start to complete 30 of 54 passes for 329 yards, with one score and one second-quarter interception that did not lead to points thanks to Winfield's strip of Akers. However, the Rams' Stafford generally had more time to throw and completed 28 of 38 passes for 366 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He repeatedly found Kupp, the NFL's 2021 leader in all receiving categories, hitting him nine times on 11 targets for 183 yards and a score. Stafford and Kupp hooked up for the game's biggest play on a 70-yard touchdown in the second quarter, killing the Bucs' chances of reversing the early momentum after a Vita Vea sack put the Rams into a third-and-20.
The Bucs helped the Rams put them in an early hole with a serious of uncharacteristic mistakes in the first half. Kupp was left wide open on the right sideline on his long touchdown catch and Evans surprisingly dropped a pass a few snaps later. David, one of the least-penalized players in the NFL throughout his career, was flagged fro unsportsmanlike conduct when he slammed his helmet to the ground after Kupp's toucchdown. Tom Brady and Ndamukong Suh also drew 15-yard penalties for yelling at, respectively, a referee and Stafford in the first half. Punter Bradley Pinion, one of the NFL's best at forcing touchbacks on kickoffs, angled two of his kickoffs out of bounds for penalties that allowed Los Angeles to start drives at its own 40.
"I think there's a lot of really tough, hard-nosed guys [on the roster] that believe in each other and we all believe we've got to make just one play to get ourselves in the end zone," said Brady. "We just overcame a lot of mistakes. At the end, there were just way too many mistakes. You've got to play clean games if you want to give yourselves the best chance to win. If it's less than that, you're not going to have a great chance to win. You may have a chance to win but not a chance to win that we needed. They made plenty of mistakes too and it wasn't, I would say, a perfect game by them either, but in the end they just made one more play than us.
The Bucs' final mistake may have been a communication problem on Kupp's 44-yard catch just before the game-winning field goal. Arians indicated that the Buccaneers had called an all-out blitz but some of the defenders did not get the message.
"Some of the guys didn't blitz," said Arians. "I don't know if we didn't get the ball but it was an all-out blitz and we should have got a ton of pressure."
The Bucs' first drive had a promising beginning, with Fournette slashing for 11 yards over right tackle on the first play and for 10 over left guard on the next one. However, the Bucs faced a third-and-eight a few plays later and CB Darious Williams broke up a quick slant to Gronkowski to force a punt. Bradley Pinion's kick bounced into the end zone for a touchback.
Stafford threw on the Rams' first three plays, all completed, and the third was a 17-yard crossing route to Kupp that got the ball just across midfield. A holding call knocked the Rams back into their own territory but Stafford scrambled and slung a sidearm pass to Beckham on the next play. Higbee ran straight up the right seam on the next snap and hauled in a 29-yard pass at the nine. Dean nearly intercepted Stafford's second-down pass in the end zone, and Davis prevented a back-corner fade to Van Jefferson to force the Rams to settle for Matt Gay's 27-yard field goal.
The Bucs picked up the tempo on their next drive but still fell into a third-and-nine after Brady sailed a pass over Gronkowski's head on second down. Brady was trying to get a pass off to Evans on third down when he was hit by Donald amid a collapsing pocket. Grant Stuard tripped return man Brandon Powell at the Rams' 29 on the ensuing punt.
The Rams quickly got into scoring territory again thanks in large part to two penalties, a pass-interference flag on Jamel Dean and a taunting call on Ndamukong Suh. Suh was flagged for voicing his displeasure at Stafford, who he appeared to believe had kicked him after a near-sack. A nine-yard run around left end and a Stafford sneak made it first-and-goal at the Bucs' seven and the Rams scored on the next play, a seven-yard touchdown pass over the middle to TE Kendall Blanton.
The Bucs got on the board on their next drive, marching 48 yards to set up Succop's 45-yard field goal. Most of it came on the first two plays of the drive, the first a screen to Fournette that he cut back across the middle of the field for 13 yards. On the next play, Brady managed to duck under and around Von Miller, scramble to his right and throw back to Gronkowski over the middle for 29 yards. The drive stalled there, however, and the Bucs settled for three.
Pinion's kickoff went out of bounds, allowing the Rams to start again at their own 40. Vea pushed the Rams into a third-and-19 hole with a stop of Akers for no gain on first down and a 10-yard sack on second down, but that was no problem for Stafford. With a long time to work in the pocket on third-and-20, Stafford eventually found Kupp wide open behind the defense on the right sideline and hit him deep downfield for a 70-yard touchdown.
David drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the play for taking off his helmet, which let the Rams kickoff from midfield and Gay popped up a short kick that allowed the cover team to drop Jaelon Darden at the 14. Evans dropped a comebacker near the sticks on second down and he and Brady couldn't hook up on an out on third down, leading to another punt. Pinion boomed a high 55-yard punt but Powell got 21 yards back on the return to the Rams' 49.
The Bucs' defense got its first three-and-out on the next possession. DL Rakeem Nunez-Roches stopped Akers for a loss of three and Stafford threw his next two passes incomplete. The Rams had to punt but just missed downing the ball at the Bucs' one.
After the touchback, Tampa Bay started again at its own 20 and mounted another drive into Rams territory but came up empty. Brady adopted a wise strategy: Throw the ball to Mike Evans as much as possible. Four straight completions to Evans picked up 41 yards, though the Bucs lost some of that when Brady was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after yelling at an official. It was second-and-18 after that penalty but Brady lobbed a pass to Fournette on a wheel route that the back caught one-handed for a gain of 20. The drive stalled at the Rams' 30, however, and Succop missed a 48-yard field goal try wide to the right.
The Rams started at their 38 after the miss and converted an early third down when Akers slipped out of a Mike Edwards tackle attempt on a screen to the left. Three plays later, Stafford threw a quick slant to TE Tyler Higbee to convert another third down and make it first-and-10 at the Bucs' 39. The Rams got one more first down at the 28 but a tackle for a four-yard loss by David on Sony Michel helped the stop the drive after that and Gay came on to hit a 40-yard field goal for a 20-3 Rams lead with 2:19 left in the first half.
The Rams tripped up Darden at the Bucs' 15 on the next kickoff and Brady absorbed a seven-yard sack by Donald on first down. After the break for the two-minute warning, Brady tried to get a big chunk downfield with a flag route to Gronkowski but S Nick Scott cut across the field to pick it off at the Bucs' 31.
After the Rams got one first down Jefferson ran a simple comebacker on the right sideline and picked up 11 to make it first-and-goal at the six. However, the Bucs managed to escape the situation without giving up points. Suh stopped Akers for no gain on first down and then Winfield managed to rip the ball out of Akers' hands as both were falling to the turf at the one. Akers was originally ruled down before the fumble but replay review revealed that it was a fumble and Winfield had a clear recovery at the one.
The Rams got the ball first to start the second half after a touchback by Pinion. Two plays into the drive, Stafford found Beckham in a hole in the coverage on the left sideline and hit him for a gain of 17. A tackle for loss by Devin White and a delay of game call helped the Bucs force a third-and-five at the Rams' 49 and White tipped away a pass over the middle to force a punt. The kick bounced out of bounds at the Bucs' five.
Fournette bashed up the middle for seven yards on first down but the Bucs couldn't move the chains and Pinion had to punt with his feet in the end zone. Powell broke off another long return, getting the ball all the way back to the Bucs' 28.
Catches for 11 yards by Blanton and 10 by Beckham made it first-and-goal at the three and Stafford snuck it in himself on third-and-goal to give the Rams a 27-3 lead with seven minutes left in the third quarter.
Brady got the Buccaneers into scoring range quickly on the next drive, finding Gronkowski wide open down the left sideline for a gain of 42 down to the Rams' 23. An 11-yard out by Evans made it first down at the 12 but the Bucs got no closer and settled for Succop's 29-yarder to make it a 21-point game with three minutes left in the third period.
Pinion kicked the ball out of bounds on the kickoff for a second time to give the Rams a start at their own 40 again, but this drive only lasted one play. Stafford hit Kupp on a short pass but Dean managed to strip the ball from him near the left sideline and Murphy-Bunting alertly scooped it up and returned it to the Rams' 30.
The Bucs quickly fell into a fourth-and-nine but had to go for it and Brady had time to throw a 16-yard comebacker to Miller on the left sideline. That made it first-and-10 at the 13, and two plays later Tyler Johnson made a great move two plays later to avoid a tackle and get nine yards to the one on a quick pass. Fournette ran it in behind a Cam Brate lead block on the next play.
The Tampa Bay defense then did it's part with a three-and-out, with Whitehead stopping Akers for no gain on first down and White pressuring Stafford into a high incompletion on second down. The Bucs got the ball back on their own 30 after the punt, with 14:41 left in regulation. Unfortunately, the home team couldn't capitalize on the momentum because Miller got Brady from behind on the first play, stripping the ball loose and recovering it at the Bucs' 25.
That seemed like a big blow to the Bucs' comeback hopes but fortune immediately smiled back on the Buccaneers as center Brian Allen snapped the ball over Stafford's head and Pierre-Paul won the race to the loose ball, giving the Bucs a new start at the Rams' 45. A 13-yard pass over the middle to Gronkowski got the ensuing drive going but Scott made a brilliant diving breakup of a pass that nearly got to the tight end at the 10. Brady was then sacked by Leonard Floyd to make it fourth-and-14. Brady tried to hit Evans down the right sideline but it was incomplete. An unnecessary roughness call on Eric Weddle for hitting Evans in the head was ruled to be after the change of possession so it was the Rams' ball at their own 22.
The Rams were able to run for two first downs to start the drive, gettign the ball into Bucs' territory and running the clock down below 10 minutes. A short out to Jefferson turned into an 18-yard gain when the receiver broke away from a tackle and dashed down to the Bucs' 31. The Bucs' defense held there and Gay came up short on a 47-yard field try to keep it a two-score game with 6:31 left.
The Bucs' ensuing drive started at their own 37 and they got two quick first downs, the second on a 16-yard pass-interference flag drawn by Evans against Williams. However, the drive ended shortly after that when a fourth-and-nine pass intended for Brate was out of reach.
The Rams made the Bucs burn their three timeouts on their next possession with a series of runs and there was 3:56 left when the home team got the ball back at its 23. Brady started the drive with a 19-yard sideline strike to Miller and then, two plays later, heaved a 55-yard bomb down the right sideline to Evans, who adjusted to catch it and stride and lope into the end zone. That made it a seven-point game with 3:15 left.
The Rams needed merely to get a first down or two to run out the clock but, incredibly, Suh forced a fumble by Akers on what would have been a first-down run and also recovered it for Tampa Bay at the Rams' 30. One catch and two runs by Fournette made it first down at the 18 but Evans slipped on what could have been a completion inside the 10. Another shot to Evans in the end zone was incomplete but Brate made it fourth-and-inches with a catch over the middle. After a delay to review the spot – the ruling was that it was still fourth down but the ball was moved up about half a yard – Fournette got the fourth-down handoff and stepped through an arm tackle to dash right into the end zone. Succop made the extra point to tie the game at 27-27 with 42 seconds left.
Suh and Pierre-Paul combined on a one-yard sack to start the game's last drive but Kupp then hit Kupp on a deep out for 20 yards when Murphy-Bunting slipped. On the next play the Bucs' blitzed Stafford but he got off a perfect throw downfield to Kupp for the game's final decisive play.