Rams survive Bucs' dramatic comeback, will meet 49ers in NFC title game
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Matthew Stafford outplayed Tom Brady in the final minute, moving the Rams into position for a last-second field goal that gave Los Angeles a 30-27 victory over the Buccaneers on Sunday after the seven-time Super Bowl champion led Tampa Bay on a late tying drive.
Stafford threw for 366 yards and two touchdowns, and Matt Gay’s 30-yard field goal as time expired sent the Rams (14-5) into next Sunday's NFC championship game at home against the San Francisco 49ers.
Brady rallied the Bucs from a 27-3 second-half deficit with help from three Los Angeles turnovers, tying the game on Leonard Fournette’s 9-yard run on fourth-and-inches with 42 seconds remaining. The NFL's all-time passer leader didn't get an opportunity to finish the job.
And it's uncertain if that was the final game for Brady, who's undecided on retirement.
Stafford led the Rams downfield after the ensuing kickoff, using completions of 20 and 44 yards to league receiving leader Cooper Kupp to set up Gay’s third field goal of the day.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Stafford said. "I mean, we sure let ’em back in the game with a bunch of mistakes on offense. Our defense played outstanding. We’ve got to clean some stuff up, do a little better job in the turnover department.
"This is a tough team, man, this is what we’re all about. Just happy to get a win and keep on moving.”
Earlier, Stafford found Kupp wide open behind the Bucs secondary on a 70-yard scoring play that put Los Angeles up 17-3 early in the second quarter.
“Man, he’s the heart and soul of this offense,” Stafford said. "What he’s able to do down in, down out, whether it’s in the pass game, run game — he’s an unbelievable competitor.”
Stafford, who had never won a postseason game before beating Arizona in the previous week’s wild-card round, completed 28 of 38 passes without an interception. The 13-year veteran also scored on a 1-yard run as the Rams (14-5) advanced to next Sunday’s NFC championship game at home against the San Francisco 49ers.
Brady completed 30 of 54 passes for 329 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He was sacked three times and lost a fumble.
Fournette also scored on a 1-yard run for Tampa Bay, which pulled within 27-20 on Brady's 55-yard TD throw to Mike Evans, who made the catch with Jalen Ramsey in pursuit with 3:20 left.
The Bucs (14-5), who lost to the Rams for third time in two seasons, were trying to become the first team to repeat as Super Bowl champions since the Brady-led New England Patriots during the 2004 season.
Stafford played one of his best games of the season in the September meeting, when he threw for four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 34-24 Rams win in Los Angeles. He got off to another fast start Sunday, completing nine of his first 12 passes for 176 yards and the TDs to Blanton and Kupp to open a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter.
It was 20-3 at halftime, and the Bucs were fortunate their deficit wasn’t bigger. With the Rams on the verge of scoring again in the closing seconds of the second quarter, Cam Akers fumbled at the Tampa Bay 1 and Tampa Bay’s Antoine Winfield recovered to keep the defending champs to keep from falling behind.
Akers initially was ruled down by contact, but a lengthy review of the play determined the ball was beginning to come loose before the running back’s helmet hit the turf.
The Rams built the lead to 27-3 on Stafford’s quarterback sneak, with help along the way from some uncharacteristic mistakes by the Bucs. That included unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for taunting and Brady, who was flagged while arguing unsuccessfully for what he felt should have been a penalty on the Rams for a hit that appeared to bloody his lip.
The Rams were generous, too, continuing to hurt themselves in the second half.
Kupp, who had nine catches for 183 yards, lost a fumble, and the offense failed to take advantage of Von Miller sacking Brady to a force a fumble at the Tampa Bay 25 when center Brian Allen snap sailed past Stafford in shotgun formation and recovered by the Bucs.
Finally, Suh forced a second fumble by Akers at the Los Angeles 30, giving Brady an opportunity to tie it in the last two minutes.
Evans finished with eight catches for 119 yards. Fournette, activated from injured reserve after missing four games with a hamstring strain, rushed for 51 yards on 13 carries and had nine receptions for 56 yards.
Rams: Played without LT Andrew Whitworth, who was hurt during the previous week’s wild-card round victory over Arizona.
Buccaneers: Wirfs’ backup, Josh Wells, injured an ankle in the third quarter but returned. ... Backup RB Ronald Jones (ankle) was inactive. ... CB Carlton Davis left the field favoring his right shoulder late in the first half but finished the game. ... Punt returner Jaelon Darden left with a possible concussion in the fourth quarter..
Rams: Host the NFC championship game against the NFC West-rival 49ers, who have beaten Los Angeles six straight times.
Buccaneers: Await word on whether the 44-year-old Brady will retire or return for a 23rd NFL season.
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://apnews.com/hub/pro-32 and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL