LB Hardy Nickerson is one of the few Bucs that remembers playing the Rams
NFL fans may think they're seeing something new when the Buccaneers and the Rams square off in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, January 23, as both of these teams have pulled themselves up from extended periods of inconsequence. That's not completely true, however. The Bucs and Rams have actually played a game of this magnitude before, as well as a string of other spectacular football games.
When this series officially began in 1977, the Rams were representing Los Angeles, where they had been stationed since moving from Cleveland in 1947. Tampa Bay, still looking for the franchise's first victory after enduring a winless inaugural season in 1976, traveled to L.A. on November 6 and was blanked 31-0. It couldn't have been known at that point the importance that the Bucs-Rams series would take on very shortly.
Los Angeles made the playoffs following that '77 season but lost in the Divisional Playoff round. The next year, the Rams, under the guidance of QB Pat Haden, continued to improve, posting a 12-4 record and this time advancing to the NFC Championship Game before losing to Dallas. In their third season of existence, the Buccaneers were improving on their own scale, having broken their long losing streak at the end of 1977 and won half of their first eight games in 1978. Nevertheless, the Buccaneers were severe underdogs to the 7-2 Rams when the teams again met in L.A. on November 5.
That didn't stop the Bucs from taking the Rams to the wire in that '78 affair. Coached by John McKay, legendary in the L.A. area for his years as the Head Coach at USC, the Buccaneers scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 23-23, but eventually lost on a 27-yard field goal by Frank Corral with three seconds remaining. Tampa Bay had tied the game 44 seconds before the winning kick on a 23-yard scoring pass by QB Mike Rae to WR Johnny McKay, son of the coach and older brother of the Buccaneers' current general manager, Richard McKay.
Somehow, the cross-country Bucs and Rams just became more frequent competitors. On September 23, 1979, the Rams made their first trip to Tampa and left with a 21-6 loss, one of five straight victories that the Buccaneers posted to open the season. Though that loss dropped the Rams to 2-2 and they eventually skidded to 5-6, L.A. righted itself with four wins in the last five weeks of the regular season and slipped into the playoffs as the NFC West champions. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, needed a 3-0 win over Kansas City in their own season finale to nail down the team's first NFC Central Division title and a pass to the second week of the playoffs.
When the Bucs opened their first playoff foray with a 24-17 home win over Philadelphia and the Rams avenged their 1978 playoff loss to the Cowboys with a win at Dallas, an NFC Championship Game in Tampa was created. Though Tampa Bay's NFL-best defense had completely stymied L.A. in its September win, allowing just 149 yards and no offensive scores, the Rams more than doubled their output in the January 6 rematch. L.A. pounded out 216 of its 369 total yards on the ground and won 9-0 on Corral's three short field goals. The Rams went on to Super Bowl XIV, where they lost 31-19 to Pittsburgh.
The Bucs did not have to wait long for revenge, as the Rams popped up on Tampa Bay's 1980 schedule in week two, again in Tampa. This contest was also played out on a national stage, as it was the Buccaneers' first appearance on ABC's Monday Night Football. The Rams were again held to exactly three Corral field goals, but this team the Bucs scored enough to counteract Corral, winning 10-9 on QB Doug Williams' touchdown sneak in the game's final minute.
Perhaps the Bucs and Rams needed a breather from each other, and they got it as the two teams did not meet again until 1984. A Los Angeles victory on that day started a string of six straight Rams wins in the series, as the Buccaneers waded through an uninterrupted 15-year stretch of losing seasons. That didn't rob the series of its thrills however. For instance, the NFL's two leading rushers of 1984, L.A.'s Eric Dickerson and Tampa Bay's James Wilder, headlined the action in Tampa Stadium on November 25 of that year. Dickerson and the Rams came out on top in a 34-33 thriller, with Dickerson rushing for 191 yards and three touchdowns, one more than Wilder's two scores.
The two teams just couldn't stop thrilling the Tampa Bay crowd. One year later, on October 13, 1985, the Rams again won in the fourth quarter when CB LeRoy Irvin returned an interception 34 yards for the final score in a 31-27 nailbiter. Buccaneer QB Steve DeBerg threw four scoring passes in that game, but two of them were interception returns by the Rams. Against all odds, the Bucs and Rams played it even closer in 1986, when it took overtime to decide a 26-20 L.A. victory. On October 5, this time in L.A.'s Anaheim Stadium, the Bucs used an impressive 80-yard field goal drive directed by QB Steve Young in the game's final minute to knot the game at 20-20. However, Dickerson struck again in overtime, taking the fourth snap of the overtime period up the middle for 42 yards and the winning touchdown.
The sixth straight Rams victory in the series occurred in 1992, when the visiting L.A. squad overcame a 27-3 halftime deficit to win 31-27 in one of the biggest comebacks in NFL history. A 100-yard rushing effort by RB Reggie Cobb and QB Vinny Testaverde's two TD passes were overcome before a national ESPN audience by Ram QB Jim Everett's three second-half scoring throws. The Buccaneers snapped L.A.'s series winning streak in 1994 by winning 24-14 in Tampa on December 11. WR Charles Wilson turned in the game of his career in leading the Bucs to that victory, catching four passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns.
The Rams moved to St. Louis the next year and the Bucs haven't had the opportunity to play them since. In a series full of close games and historical Buccaneer moments, it seems only fitting that the rivalry would be renewed in the NFC's most important game of the season.