The St. Louis Rams (5-8) have not been mathematically eliminated from a playoff spot, but nothing short of a miracle scenario will allow them to get in at this point. That being said, a Week 14 victory over the Lions to end a five-game losing streak provides evidence that this team has not completely given up on the season. More importantly, in what could be the Rams' last game ever in the city of St. Louis, they have plenty of incentive to win tonight. Head coach Jeff Fisher should have an inspired Rams team for a prime-time matchup against the Buccaneers.
Last week's loss to the Saints at home put a serious damper on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' (6-7) postseason aspirations. While the Bucs are still "technically" alive for a playoff spot, their chances reside somewhere in the slim-to-none category. Head coach Lovie Smith may have the superior team, but the lack of momentum could hurt the Bucs on the road against a Rams team with no intention of losing their final home game.
Thursday night’s matchup will be the 23rd meeting all-time between the Rams and the Buccaneers in a series that dates back to 1977. St. Louis holds a solid edge in the all-time series with a record of 14-8. The Rams have also won the last three games in the series, including a hard-fought 19-17 victory last season in Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay at St. Louis
Kickoff: 8:25 p.m. ET (Thursday)
TV: NFL Network
Spread: St. Louis -2
Three Things to Watch
1. A heavy dose of Todd Gurley
When Rob Boras was promoted to Rams’ offensive coordinator just prior to Week 14, his first order of business was to get his star rookie running back the football early and often. Boras’ plan of attack paid off, as Gurley’s monster performance (140 yds., 2 TDs) led them to victory over the Lions. It only makes sense that Boras will attempt to employ a similar strategy tonight. Standing in the way will be a stout Tampa Bay run defense that will put great emphasis on stopping Gurley. After all, there isn’t much to worry about from the Rams' passing game.
Unfortunately for Gurley, shutting down opposing running backs also happens to be a specialty for the Buccaneer defense. Tampa Bay gives up just 3.4 yards per carry, which is second best in the NFL. The Bucs have also allowed only six rushing touchdowns on the season, the third fewest in the league. Gurley is fully capable of embarrassing any defense on any given day, but a greedy Buccaneer run defense will do everything in its power to make sure Gurley earns every yard in his first prime-time game in front of a national audience.
2. Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Passing Attack vs. the St. Louis Pass Defense
The No. 1 overall pick of the most recent draft is having a solid rookie campaign, but a mediocre performance last week against a terrible Saints defense was far from impressive. Winston will be in for an even bigger challenge against the Rams tonight. Only four teams in the NFL have allowed fewer TD passes than the Rams. St. Louis also boasts a stellar pass rush, led by defensive tackle Aaron Donald. It should be no surprise that big pass plays against this defense have been few and far between.
The absence of star wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who may miss the rest of the season with an MCL sprain, will only serve to make the challenge more difficult. Winston will have to rely on Mike Evans to pick up the slack, as he did earlier this season. That said, Evans has been inconsistent of late, and the Rams' secondary will make him a huge priority as the Bucs' only viable receiving threat. Rams shutdown cornerback, Janoris Jenkins, should also return from a concussion, which will further strengthen that effort. St. Louis held Calvin Johnson to just one catch for 16 yards last week, so you have to like this defense's chances against Evans. Other than Gurley and Tavon Austin, the Rams' greatest asset is their pass defense. That side of the ball is fully capable of making life difficult for Jameis Winston and the Buccaneer passing game.
3. More Doug Martin!
Despite just 11 carries in last week’s loss to New Orleans, Doug Martin had 81 rushing yards and a score. Tampa Bay was widely criticized for underutilizing Martin in the loss, and it has been argued that the Bucs would have won the game if Martin had been more involved. Tampa Bay is not likely to make that mistake two weeks in a row, and like the Rams with Gurley, you can probably expect an expanded workload for Martin tonight.
While St. Louis will make a special effort to limit Martin’s production, the matchup still bodes well for the NFL’s second-leading rusher. The Rams rank 21st against the run, giving up 116 yards per game. Martin provides the Buccaneers with their best chance for success on offense tonight.
The Rams head into tonight’s game with some momentum and a huge incentive to win what could be their final game in St. Louis. They also have a budding superstar running back in Todd Gurley, a capable playmaker in Tavon Austin, and a pass defense that should give Jameis Winston fits. What the Rams sorely lack is a competent and consistent passing game. Case Keenum is clearly not the answer at quarterback. Gurley is an amazing talent, but he cannot be expected to carry the Rams offense all by himself week in and week out.
The Buccaneers have issues of their own, and it is always difficult to play on the road, especially playing in an atmosphere where emotions are likely to run high for the home team. Regardless, Tampa Bay has the better team overall. The Rams will have trouble containing Doug Martin, Winston should outperform Keenum in spite of the difficult matchup, and emotion will only carry the Rams so far. If the Tampa Bay defense can limit big plays and hold Gurley to a reasonable stat line, the Buccaneers should come out on top in a fairly low-scoring affair.
Prediction: Buccaneers 20, Rams 14
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.