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Divisional Round Preview: Rams battle Tom Brady & Buccaneers for a chance at NFC crown

Last year's Super Bowl was supposed to be in Inglewood at SoFi Stadium.

The global and local circumstances that made that logistically impossible worked out well for both Tampa and Los Angeles.

The Buccaneers – having augmented their in-house talent with championship Patriots migrating south on their way toward retirement – became the first team in the 55 years of its existence to host (and subsequently win) a Super Bowl in their home stadium.

The Rams, meantime, got an extra year to complete the world's greatest sports and entertainment venue, a postponement that will enable SoFi Stadium to welcome fans for this February's main event, and most importantly, the time to similarly refine a roster that now boasts Matthew Stafford, Von Miller, and Odell Beckham Jr.

Ever since the Bucs rattled off eight consecutive wins on their way to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at home, their accomplishment became L.A.'s ambition.

As two NFC powers, it was only natural that their paths might intersect in this postseason. But the story arcs could hardly have collided in a more compelling fashion.

In the Divisional Round, the Rams have earned the right to challenge the defending champs.

To be this year's Bucs, they'll have to beat this year's Bucs.

GOATs and Rams

The whiplash from Kyler Murray to Tom Brady is jarring, especially just six days apart.

A week ago, we were discussing Stafford's opportunity to rid himself of a label – and did he ever, against an opposing No. 1 overall pick making his postseason debut.

Sunday, it's the guy with 35 postseason wins – including nine straight in the Divisional Round – on the opposing sideline.

Murray, arguably the fastest player in the NFL; Brady, the most statuesque quarterback this side of Big Ben.

Murray, the division rival who has one career win against the Rams; Brady, who has two Super Bowl rings at the expense of the Rams.

Time to level up.

A Different Generation

Perhaps nowhere is the chasm between Arizona and Tampa Bay's offense more pronounced than in pre-and-post-snap decision making.

You may have heard that Brady's offensive line will be wounded, if not depleted, this Sunday.

It won't matter.

There's never been anyone better at protecting himself – knowing where to go with the ball and when.

This season, according to Next Gen Stats, Brady led the NFL in quick completions, attempts, yards, and touchdowns. His average time to throw was 2.48 seconds, his fastest since they started tracking these things. With his center and right tackle dinged up against the Eagles last week, that number was pruned to 2.17 seconds – fastest for Brady in any game since at least 2016, per NFL Research.

And here's the rub: This season, no defense has allowed more quick-game yards than that of the Rams. No shock there, really. When you have Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd, Greg Gaines, and Miller, opposing teams aren't inclined to pat the ball in the pocket. And L.A.'s zone-heavy coverage is structured deep-to-short.

Armed with this information, and the understanding that the Bucs are without talented targets Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, will the Rams break the mold? Will we see them challenge Mike Evans and the skill group of Tampa Bay in more press coverage?

The More the Merrier

Going the other direction, something we covered last week is a prevailing theme again against the Bucs, as well.

To recap: Stafford just had the best season against the blitz in the Next Gen era. Arizona was a blitz-heavy defense, and they chose to maintain that identity in the Wild Card game. In fact, Stafford saw extra rushers on a season-high 50 percent of his dropbacks. No surprise, he carved the Cardinals up.

Well guess who sends blitzes at an even higher percentage than the Cardinals? You guessed it. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Armed with this information, will defensive coordinator Todd Bowles throw Sean McVay a changeup and play more coverage concepts? Or will this elite group that had Philadelphia shut out well into the fourth quarter in their Wild Card win stick to their script?

The chess match here is as good as it gets.

No Better Time Than Now

We followed the drought all season.

The Rams finally got a special teams touchdown in Week 16 at Minnesota. They were among the last teams in the NFL to benefit from a non-offensive touchdown.

But after 17 games, still their defense had not found the end zone. Finally, Troy Reeder and David Long Jr. broke through with the pick-six of Murray on Monday.

Points scored by L.A.'s defense through 17 games: 0.

So far in the playoffs: 6.

Remember they got hot at the end of last season. Perhaps there's more in store.

Stop Frontin'

The Rams have many strengths. But I'm not sure any has proven greater than their defensive front, where each member of the rotation boats a Top-30 position grade, according to Pro Football Focus.

Aaron Donald (1)

Von Miller (8)

Greg Gaines (28)

Leonard Floyd (30)

And in his limited reps, Marquise Copeland just collected his first interception!

Against a Bucs offensive line that could be compromised, #DAWGWORK is the formula for success.

If L.A. is going to advance in the playoffs, against elite offenses and savvy quarterbacks, I firmly believe this is the group that's going to take them there.

Got a Kick Out of This

Monday might have been the best defensive game of the season; I do think it was the most complete effort on special teams.

Matt Gay was perfect. Brandon Powell did his thing. Ben Skowronek came through. Johnny Hekker was in his bag.

Arizona's best starting field position was the minus-25. Six possessions began inside their 15.

Joe DeCamillis and company downed four punts at-or-inside the 10. They've really been a bright spot down the stretch.

If Brady and the Bucs are going to dink-and-dunk, how huge would it be to make them go 85-90-95-yards?

Green Akers

So much has changed since Week 3 at SoFi Stadium that I really don't think that Bucs-Rams game has much bearing on Sunday.

That 34-24 win might as well have been last season.

Tampa Bay's secondary is much healthier this time around. The Rams won't have Robert Woods or DeSean Jackson, but will bring OBJ to Raymond James Stadium.

And perhaps the biggest difference? Cam Akers is in the backfield.

Sony Michel deserves so much credit for helping this offense forge an identity, win the NFC West, and set a course for the postseason. His role is still instrumental.

But it's just different when Akers is in the game – especially through the air. For a system that has lived in empty formations in 2021, having Akers and Tyler Higbee to a side with the Triple Crown winner in a trips bunch opposite has to be a defensive coordinator's worst nightmare.

Line of the week goes to Stafford, who teased Akers about catching OBJ's pass but putting his throw on the turf.

"Hey, I see how it is. You're going to catch his and not mine," Stafford said in a behind-the-scenes moment you can only relive through Sounds of the Game.

I'll virtually guarantee Stafford is going back to Akers in a favorable matchup on Sunday. And surely Akers will relish the chance to make it up to his new signal-caller.

Cam I Am

While the sample size is far too small to draw any conclusions, doesn't it feel like Playoff Cam is a real thing?

Last January in the Wild Card win in Seattle: 176 scrimmage yards, most by a rookie in Rams playoff history, third-most by any Ram.

The following week at Lambeau Field: 96 total yards, his second postseason touchdown, and a scintillating two-point conversion.

Last Monday: 18 touches, 95 scrimmage yards, and a couple of his most dynamic runs negated by penalties.

Throwing more in the pot doesn't always produce the best outcomes. But in this case, Akers seems to be the key ingredient that brings the whole recipe together.

In The (Outside) Zone

And here's my favorite element of Akers' comeback and this weekend's divisional game.

The Rams rushed on over 61% of snaps in their triumph over Arizona. That was the highest rate of their season and the fifth-highest clip under McVay, per ESPN.

That was by design, not just a reflection of the Rams salting the game away with a big lead. Their run percentage was actually even higher in the first half.

Let's spin it forward.

Perennially, under this regime, Tampa Bay's been one of the best run defenses in the NFL.

According to Next Gen Stats, the Bucs have allowed the fewest yards per rush and the fewest rushing touchdowns on carries inside the tackles. However, that same defense has allowed the highest rate of handoffs gaining 10-or-more yards outside the tackles this season.

Akers is a complete back. He can hit any gap and execute behind all the blocking schemes. But you feel his explosiveness, his vision, his power out on the perimeter.

If Vita Vea and Tampa's defense make it muddy between the tackles, then having Akers to stretch them sideline-to-sideline, and unlock the portions of the playbook that are predicated on that outside zone action, is the ideal antidote for this Sunday.

Hoping History Repeats Itself

Hat tip to my old acquaintance in Tampa Bay, Greg Auman, one of the most informative writers with whom I've ever had the privilege of rubbing shoulders.

He notes that the only other time the Bucs have had two home playoff games in the same season was 1979, when they beat the Eagles then lost to Rams in NFC Championship Game.

Happy Birthday To Two

And finally, happy 51st to general manager Les Snead this week and 36th to head coach Sean McVay this coming Monday.

We all know what they want for their birthdays this year … and it ain't picks.

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