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2021 NFL playoffs: What to watch for in Rams-Buccaneers Divisional Round playoff game

Two NFC heavyweights that rolled to division titles clash here for the second time this season. But how much can be gleaned from a Rams' Week 3 34-24 win over the Buccaneers that’s now roughly four months old? Tampa Bay’s makeup as a team, through injuries alone, is different now. Back in September, the Bucs secondary was beset by injuries; they were without Sean Murphy-Bunting against the Rams, then lost Jamel Dean early in the contest. Not surprisingly, Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford feasted for 343 passing yards and four touchdown tosses. This time around, it’s the Bucs offense that’s short-handed. If anything, the Rams should at least carry the confidence of knowing they were one of four teams to topple Tampa Bay. But the job is different now, not only from a personnel standpoint, but in venue as well -- the Rams won at home in Week 3, but travel cross-country for the rematch.

Here are four things to watch when the Bucs play playoff host to the Rams:

  1. Can the Rams avoid two-minute Tom? A signature trait of Bucs quarterback Tom Brady’s unequivocal greatness is his ability to flip defeats into wins in the two-minute drill. It’s why the question “Did they leave too much time for Brady?” follows any late touchdown to take a lead over Brady-led teams. He truly has no peer in this regard. To close out a win over Brady, the Rams really just have two options: take a two-score lead into the final minutes, or if it’s a one-score lead (gulp), they’d better have the ball and squeeze out the clock with first downs. The alternative is doom. Brady has vanquished scores of victims with only seconds to spare -- the Rams can’t set themselves up to be the next.
  2. The Bucs love blitzes, and Matthew Stafford loves to burn them. If the Rams quarterback is to outduel Brady, he’ll need to handle a Bucs blitz package that came after quarterbacks at the second-highest rate in the NFL in the regular season (38.1%). That shouldn’t be much of a problem for Stafford, however. Per NFL Research, Bucs blitzes were beaten for 17 touchdowns this season (second-highest in the NFL), while Stafford has shredded blitzes for a 141.8 passer rating that’s the highest of any qualified passer in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016). Do the Bucs tone down their blitzing in light of Stafford’s ability to beat extra pressure? Third and medium-to-longs will largely tell that tale.
  3. Will Cam Akers energize the Rams’ offense? The Rams running back’s place in the offense took a big jump from his Week 18 return from a torn Achilles (eight touches, 13 yards) to the following week’s playoff win over Arizona (18 touches, 95 yards). Still, running the ball against the Bucs is much tougher sledding than it is against the Cardinals. Akers’ return comes with great timing for a Los Angeles rushing offense that ranked 25th in the league in the regular season at 99 yards per game, and lost Darrell Henderson to a late-season injury. Sony Michel couldn’t be expected to bring much balance to the Rams’ offense by himself, but a Michel-Akers combination has a better chance.
  4. The Evans-Ramsey battle will be critical. Between the season-ending injury to Chris Godwin and the unceremonious exit of Antonio Brown, there’s all the more pressure on three-time Pro Bowler Mike Evans to deliver in the postseason. He certainly did so last week against the Eagles in catching nine balls for 117 yards and a touchdown. Repeating that kind of production against the Rams will be no easy task, particularly if he sees a lot of Jalen Ramsey in coverage. Evans’ 6-foot-5 frame is a nightmare to deal with, but Ramsey handles bigger receivers as well as any corner in the game. Given that, defensive coordinator Raheem Morris might be wise to shadow Evans with Ramsey to limit mismatches elsewhere. Per NGS, Ramsey lined up on Evans for half as many coverage snaps (nine) as Godwin (18) in the Week 3 matchup. With Godwin out, locking Ramsey on Evans would be easier done this time around.

NFL Research: Brady has more postseason wins and postseason passing yards than the other seven starting quarterbacks in the Divisional Round combined (Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Jimmy Garoppolo and Ryan Tannehill). Brady has 35 playoff wins and 12,720 playoff passing yards; the others combine for 28 and 12,273.

Next Gen stat of the game: The Bucs' run defense has held opponents to 3.0 yards per carry inside the tackles (first in NFL), but allowed 5.4 yards per carry (30th in NFL) outside the tackles.

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