Rams-Buccaneers Recap: Matthew Stafford’s moment, Todd Bowles’ folly, and what’s next for Tom Brady

Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams are moving on after taking down the Buccaneers and potentially ending Tom Brady's career.

High drama. And even bigger consequences. Rams-Buccaneers was all you could ask for in a playoff game. The Los Angeles Rams (now featuring Matthew Stafford) are back in the NFC Championship Game for the second time in four seasons after escaping Tampa Bay with a 30-27 victory over Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. They’ll host the San Francisco 49ers next Sunday.

Rams survive furious Buccaneers rally to advance to NFC Conference Championship

Where to begin?

Let’s start with the biggest throw of Stafford’s life. After watching his Rams blow a 24-point second-half lead, head coach Sean McVay didn’t sit on the ball with less than a minute left. Instead, he empowered Stafford to go win it. Stafford did just that, finding Cooper Kupp behind the Buccaneers’ secondary for 44 yards.

Todd Bowles’ big gamble goes bust

Credit Kupp for beating Antoine Winfield Jr. off the line, getting open, and catching a perfect pass from Stafford down the seam. But what was Bowles thinking? The Rams were on their own 44 with just 28 seconds and no timeouts left. The one thing Tampa couldn’t do was get beat deep. But Bowles decided to bring six in an effort to get to Stafford. Talk about a total backfire.

Stafford stood tall and made the throw — like he has all season. The veteran is one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks against the blitz. Including the Rams’ Wild Card win, Stafford completed 103 of 138 attempts for 1,303 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 1 interception when teams brought an extra rusher — for a ridiculous passer rating of 134.4.

McVay famously moved on from Jared Goff in the offseason because Stafford can do things that Goff cannot. Sunday evening, that gamble paid off.

“That was something else,” McVay said. “He certainly delivered in a big way today.”

Cooper Kupp’s massive night

Kupp might be the best wide receiver in football. He certainly played like it Sunday. On 39 routes against the Buccaneers, he was targeted 11 times, catching 9 balls for 183 yards and a touchdown. His catch rate over expectation was 11.6%.

And the sweetest part of it all? He made the play that redeemed a terrible mistake earlier in the game. The Rams led 27-6 late in the fourth quarter, and the only way they were going to lose was by turning the ball over. Kupp gave the Buccaneers that opening by coughing up the ball on their own side of the 50. It was the only fumble Kupp has lost all year.

Will Tom Brady retire or return in 2022?

The Buccaneers’ loss means no back-to-back Super Bowl champion for the 17th straight season. Their repeat hopes ended when Matt Gay booted through the 30-yard game-winner with no time left.

But it might have also meant the end of Brady’s incredible career. Brady wouldn’t commit to returning in 2022, leaving the door open to retirement.

“I haven’t put a lot of thought into it,” Brady said when asked about playing next year. “So we’ll just take it day by day and see where we’re at.”

When asked in a follow-up to share the biggest factor in his decision, Brady responded, “Truthfully guys, I’m thinking about this game, and I’m not thinking about anything past it.”

Changes coming for Buccaneers?

It’s hard to see how Brady wants to go out like this. He played poorly throughout most of the game, and the Buccaneers’ frenetic rally was more a function of the Rams’ 4 turnovers than Brady’s play. He completed just 30 of 54 attempts for 329 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

Bruce Arians, meanwhile, insisted he will return to coach the Buccaneers in 2022. He turns 70 in October.

The Buccaneers have a projected $22.5 million in cap space in 2022, but many of their best players — including Chris Godwin, Leonard Fournette, Rob Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh, and Jason Pierre-Paul — are free agents. It’s hard to see how Brady will return if the Buccaneers aren’t built to compete.

“It ain’t going to be the end of Tom Brady,” Rams defensive end Von Miller said. “… I don’t think this is going to be the end of it.”

Adam Beasley is the National NFL Analyst and Insider for Pro Football Network. You can read all of Adam’s work here and give him a follow on Twitter @AdamHBeasley.