The Tom Brady Super Bowl Tracker continues into the second week of the playoffs. This time, the venerable 44-year-old will have to get his Tampa Bay Buccaneers past the visiting Los Angeles Rams if he wants to win ring No. 8 to add to his ridiculous, never-to-be-equaled trophy case.
On the other sideline, 13-year veteran Matthew Stafford finally won his first playoff game on his fourth try. On Monday night, the Rams manhandled the Arizona Cardinals 34-11 in SoFi Stadium, the home of next month’s Super Bowl. That 23-point victory was the third-largest win differential in playoff history for the franchise.
So who are you for? You wanna see some new blood quarterbacked by a postseason novice advance to the Super Bowl? Or are you one of the few football fans in this world who really want to see Saint Tom win yet another Super Bowl and stand there on the trophy stand with the Lombardi Trophy in his hand while yelling "Let's Goooohh!" at his teammates while being covered in confetti?
That quarterback storyline is what makes this Divisional Round playoff game so intriguing. Prepare to be highly entertained.
NFC Divisional Playoff: Los Angeles (13-5) at Tampa Bay (14-4)
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 23 at 3 p.m. ET
Spread: Tampa Bay -3
Three Things to Watch
1. The biggest showdown: Bucs' O-line vs. Rams' D-line
The battle of the trenches will be huge here. Can the Buccaneers keep the hyper-active front seven of the Rams out of Brady's kitchen? The Bay Boys have the No. 2-rated offensive line in the league according to Pro Football Focus, giving up just 23 sacks on the season. But this is a Rams defense that has Aaron Darnold and Leonard Floyd and added Von Miller in early November. What was already a good pass rush has been elevated to another level. This unit amassed 50 sacks in the regular season, good for third in the NFL, and got Kyler Murray twice in the Wild Card Round. Because of this relentless pressure, the Rams also recorded 19 interceptions (tied for third), and picked Murray twice on Monday night, including a pick-six by David Long Jr. Brady was sacked less than any other quarterback in the league in the regular season, but the Buccaneers may have to play this game without tackle Tristan Wirfs and center Ryan Jensen, both of whom suffered injuries in the win over the Eagles. As of Thursday, they had yet to practice. That is a bad sign for the defending Super Bowl champs.
2. Evans vs. Ramsey
The second biggest white-hot spotlight of this game will be the matchup of wide receiver Mike Evans going up against cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who was recently named a first-team All-Pro for the third time. With Chris Godwin lost to injury and Antonio Brown no longer with the team, that puts a ton more pressure on Evans to produce. In the last two games that he has been matched up mano-a-mano vs. Ramsey, Evans has just five catches for 54 yards and no touchdowns. When Evans has been matched up against other Rams defensive backs, those numbers increase to eight catches for 101 yards. Putting a blanket on Evans will allow the Buccaneers' other pass catchers, including tight end Rob Gronkowski, to be doubled-up and effectively put a real wet blanket on Brady's targets. More than likely, Evans will need to have a transcendent showing on Sunday.
3. The importance of the run game
The Buccaneers had just 106 rushing yards on 31 carries last week in the win over Philadelphia, good for just 3.4 yards per carry. Of course, the big problem is that Leonard Fournette has not played since Week 15, and his presence has been missed. The Rams were sixth in the league in rushing defense this season, holding teams to just 103.2 yards per game four yards per carry. Arizona managed just 61 yards on the ground on 18 attempts (3.1 ypc) in the Wild Card Round, with the longest gain being 11 yards. Meanwhile, Los Angeles' running game has steadily improved. Sony Michel and Cam Akers combined for 113 yards on 30 carries in the win over the Cardinals. Their effectiveness allowed Stafford to play in a comfort zone, hitting on 13 of 17 pass attempts with no interceptions, and he was sacked just once. When the Rams have to lean too much on the passing game, Stafford has had his issues, including a stretch of eight interceptions over the final four games of the regular season. It won't be easy to run against a Tampa Bay defense that was third in the league (92.5 ypg), but you know that head coach Sean McVay won't shy away from trying to do so. So to state the obvious, the team that can run the ball more effectively, especially early in the game, will lay the groundwork — no pun intended — for a victory on Sunday.
The Rams took Game 1 between these two in SoFi Stadium back in Week 3 by a 34-24 count. In that game, they held the Buccaneers to 35 rushing yards after forcing Tampa to abandon the ground game. Brady finished with 432 passing yards, but he needed 55 attempts to get there (completed 41), had just one touchdown, was sacked three times, and finished with a 65.2 QBR. Since that game, Brady has lost several of his weapons while the Rams have added firepower to both sides of the ball. The difference in this game will be talents like Miller, Cam Akers, and Odell Beckham Jr. helping the boys in blue and gold get over the hump.
It’s interesting to note that Tom Terrific has won nine straight Divisional Round games, an NFL record. And you know the old adage by now: bet against Tom Brady in the postseason at your own peril.
But 98.7 percent of football fans out there can't bear to see Brady win yet another Super Bowl. And they will hope like hell this prediction comes true.
Prediction: Rams 35, Buccaneers 31
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.