If you can't beat 'em … join 'em. That's what the Los Angeles Rams were thinking this offseason as they looked to match the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: winning a Super Bowl scheduled for their home stadium this February.
Like the Bucs, the Rams went out and got a big-name veteran quarterback in Matthew Stafford. Is he Tom Brady? Of course not, making Stafford's task to win over critics even trickier in Hollywood.
But is Brady really a fair comparison for anyone? Stafford threw for more than 4,000 yards in seven straight seasons, from 2011-17, and ranks 16th all-time in NFL history with 45,708. At 33, he's already thrown for 287 touchdowns and has durability, missing just eight games over the past decade.
But that's where Brady, well above him on the NFL passing chart (second), can also turn around and showcase his Super Bowl rings. Stafford has none of those, let alone a playoff win, compiling an ugly 76-90-1 record as a starter while making the Pro Bowl only once with the Detroit Lions. He was suffering through yet another rebuild when the Rams swooped in and took a gamble, hoping a change of scenery plus a better supporting cast would get Stafford ready to go toe-to-toe with the best in the NFC.
Well, here we are already in Week 3, the defending Super Bowl champions providing an early test for the Rams. Both teams enter the weekend 2-0 and have a markedly easier schedule after this game for much of the next two months. Could we be witnessing an early tiebreaker in the battle for home-field advantage and that coveted first-round bye?
Stafford's sure ready to put on a show, and Brady? He's just happy to face a guy who's been a Super Bowl blessing (four meetings between the two QBs … four Vince Lombardi trophies won by Brady later that season).
It'll be a while before we know if Brady can go five-for-five. But can Stafford and the Rams scare this Tampa Bay juggernaut in the short term?
Tampa Bay (2-0) at Los Angeles (2-0)
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 26 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Buccaneers -1
Three Things To Watch
1. Stafford vs. Brady. Who will be better?
So far, Stafford has lived up to the billing out west. He leads the NFL with 15.4 yards per completion through two weeks while, his passer rating (127.0) ranks second in the NFC to Seattle's Russell Wilson.
Perhaps most importantly, a guy who got sacked a whopping 38 times last season, seventh-most in the NFL, has been dropped just twice in two games. It's allowed this pocket passer the time to make throws, on pace for a career-best 69.6 percent completion rate.
Brady's been just as strong, leading the league with nine touchdown passes already through two games. Think about that a second; at 44, he's on pace for roughly 75 touchdowns by the time the regular season ends in early January.
How about that? But where Brady has excelled, giving him the edge is bringing so many different weapons into the fold. Four different pass catchers have scored already: Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Rob Gronkowski. At any given moment, it seems like Brady can scan the field only to find someone wide open. And that's with a run game not scaring anyone: 67.0 rushing yards per game, tied for 30th in the NFL.
Stafford hasn't been quite as prolific, leaning heavily on Cooper Kupp (271 of his 599 passing yards). Other options, like last year's second-round pick Van Jefferson, need to break through the Bucs secondary to keep the Rams' offense going punch-for-punch with them. Matt Ryan just showed it's possible; he had the Falcons within 28-25 against Tampa Bay's defense last week before it all fell apart.
2. Which defense can force more turnovers?
How did the Bucs put the Falcons away? On the strength of two Ryan pick-sixes, scoring the game's final 20 points to win 48-25. Every one of their four interceptions this season has turned into a touchdown, either on the Bucs' ensuing offensive possession or by the defensive player who picks the ball off.
The Rams have also produced four takeaways, a defensive total that is tied for fourth in the NFL. Last year's All-Pros, defensive lineman Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, have each made key plays in their first two wins. In particular, Ramsey's pick of young Jacob Eason kept the Colts' backup quarterback off balance in the fourth quarter, helping preserve a 27-24 squeaker last week.
Can this team force turnovers on Brady? For all the deserved praise he's getting, the defending Super Bowl champion has quietly thrown five interceptions in his last four games. For a guy who has gone entire seasons without throwing that many, it provides an opening for a Rams defense that prides itself on putting pressure on the quarterback. Six sacks through two games are tied for fourth in the NFC, two of them from an unexpected strength: third-year linebacker Justin Hollins.
Add in the weak Bucs run game and the Rams can focus hard on some blitzes built to get to Brady. If the Falcons broke through last week (three sacks), so can they.
3. Slowing Tampa Bay's hot start
Check out the Bucs' last four games, all victories including the tail end of their Super Bowl run.
- NFC Championship Game: Up 21-10 on Green Bay at halftime
- Super Bowl LV: Up 21-6 on Kansas City at halftime
- Week 1: Up 21-16 on the Cowboys at halftime
- Week 2: Up 21-10 on the Falcons at halftime
Talk about consistency, right? The offense produces 20-plus points, putting pressure on their opponent while taking the lead into halftime and forcing a comeback. Sure, in the fourth quarter against Dallas, Tom Brady still needed to engineer a game-winning drive down the stretch. But starting off strong provides a cushion where the Bucs are always in the game.
Playing at home, can the Rams take the luster off by outperforming the Bucs early? They've led at half in the first two games of the Stafford era. Putting this type of team on their heels early is a must for them to have any chance.
Let's not forget, the Bucs made their home Super Bowl by winning on the road every game of the NFC playoffs. They're no stranger to hostile environments or new teams that think they have their season figured out with a new quarterback.
Stafford, head coach Sean McVay and the Rams are ready to play. (Remember, McVay lost to Brady in his only Super Bowl appearance). Expect a high-scoring affair. But Brady looks like a man on a mission this season to the point it's hard to bet against him.
Prediction: Buccaneers 37, Rams 34
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.