Thu, 03 Dec 2020

Rams-Bucs Preview: All Eyes on Playoff-Caliber MNF Matchup

Los Angeles Rams
21 Nov 2020, 17:24 GMT+10

J.B. Long

This is the type of game that dictates what you're playing for the rest of the way.

Win? You're a legitimate threat to make a run at the top of the NFC, and with it, the coveted bye. Depending on what happens to Green Bay in Indianapolis and to New Orleans without Drew Brees this weekend, a 7-3 mark could even launch the Rams into the No. 1 seed as soon as Monday night.

Lose? Then you're back home next week to face the 49ers with designs on the division, and realistically, not much else until further notice. Still not a bad place to be, but expectations would once again be tempered.

Said another way, the Rams chances of getting back to Raymond James Stadium in February would be bolstered considerably by taking care of Tampa before Thanksgiving.

Kickoff is at 5:15pm/pt on Monday night and you can catch the game locally on ABC7 or on ESPN. And, as always, the radio broadcast on 710 ESPN LA and 93.1 JACK FM.

If You're Not First, You're ... Gonna Want to Be Fifth

November is no time to be settling for the fifth seed, so please don't misinterpret what I'm about to write.

There's an even more subtle value to winning on Monday night, though. It's an insurance policy, of sorts.

Let's say L.A. earns the head-to-head over Tampa Bay in Week 11, but both teams finish runner-up in their respective divisions and end up tied in the wild card standings at year's end at 11-5.

The Rams would be "The Five," traveling to face "The Four" in the NFC playoffs.

Well, guess what?

It's not even Thanksgiving and we all know the four-seed is going to be the East champion. So if you have to hit the road in January for a wild card game, going to Philadelphia (or New York) to face an opponent with a losing record is about the best case scenario. Just ask last year's Seahawks.

Time Versus Tom

Who knows how much longer Tom Brady will play?

The Buccaneers are not on next year's schedule (though they could end up coming to SoFi Stadium as a like-place finisher), so there's a chance this could be the last time the Rams face the quarterback who has tormented this franchise.

Brady is 5-1 against the Rams, with his lone defeat coming in Week 10, 2001 - his first year as a starter. As we know, he'd avenge that loss later that season in Super Bowl XXXVI and never look back. He also set the NFL wins record against the Rams in 2016 and denied them another ring in Super Bowl LIII.

All of those meetings were with the New England Patriots, of course. Let's see if Brady's change of franchise changes the Rams' fortunes.

Deep Tracks

Last week, we wrote about Russell Wilson and the Seahawks' uncanny ability to get over the top of defenses versus the Rams' ability to completely eliminate downfield explosives

Well this week, it's the opposite.

Despite having an absolute arsenal at his disposal, Brady is 3-for-his-last-30 on passes beyond 20 yards (all three of those came against the Raiders in Week 7, per NFL Research).

Are they due to hit one? Certainly.

Can the Rams' elite rush and cover combination keep Brady off track for another week? We'll see. L.A. continues to surrender the fewest such receptions in the NFL and zero deep touchdowns on the season.

To-Do List

Brady is the only quarterback Aaron Donald has faced multiple times without registering a sack or coming away with a win (and more often than not, he gets both).

Tampa Bay is where Sean McVay got his start, as an offensive assistant to Jon Gruden in 2008. Now, the Bucs are the only NFC Team he's yet to beat in his tenure with the Rams. He ticked off Washington - another of his former organizations - back in Week 5.

Just a couple potential check marks to monitor on Monday evening.

McVay's Message

There remains a sizable discrepancy between the Rams' offensive efficiency (fifth in NFL) and point production (18th). Only Philadelphia (22.6) has averaged fewer points than Los Angeles (24.0) among teams currently in the NFC playoff framework.

It's been more than a month since the Rams reached 30 points in a game, and they're averaging just 20 over their last four outings. Often times, they've lacked the killer instinct to put an opponent away, having mustered only seven points in the fourth quarter of their last three games, combined.

"I'm not going to apologize for having high standards," the head coach said this week. "I expect us to play better. And I refuse to believe that we won't as we move forward."

Losing Left Tackles

The degree of difficulty goes up a notch this week, however. Not only are the Bucs the best defense Los Angeles will face all season - and potentially the best in the NFL - but now the Rams are without their cornerstone, Andrew Whitworth.

And there are two recent examples of what's happened to teams who've lost their left tackles.

The Titans were 4-0 and averaging 30.5 points per game before Taylor Lewan tore his ACL. They're 2-3 and putting up only 25.4 since.

As for the Ravens, they were cruising at 5-1 and scoring 29.8 points per contest when they inked Ronnie Stanley to a mega extension. In the first quarter of their next game, he broke an ankle and Baltimore hasn't been the same since: 1-2 and plummeting to 21.7 scoring average.

That's a fate McVay and the Rams hope to avoid, if not flip.

Here Comes the Boom

"He's probably the best mentor I possibly could have had," Joe Noteboom said of Whitworth on this week's Rams Revealed podcast, as he prepares to fill the massive void on Goff's blind side.

On the short list of players the Rams could ill-afford to lose, Whitworth ranked at-or-near the top. He hadn't missed a game due to injury since 2013, well before he came to Los Angeles.

If there's a silver lining to this setback, and believe me we're really digging deep here, it's that the Rams get to find out whether Noteboom is the left tackle of the future they envisioned in 2018 when he was selected in the third round out of TCU.

"I think that's a glass half-full, very positive way of looking at it," McVay told me earlier this week.

Bucs Blitz

By the way, Tampa Bay loves to blitz. Like, more than Miami.

Only Baltimore sends extra rushers at opposing quarterbacks more often than the Bucs.

Kicking to the Curb

Here's hoping the third time's the charm for the L.A. kicking game.

If nothing else, Matt Gay should be familiar with his surroundings, having kicked for the Bucs last year at Raymond James Stadium.

He also was perfect against the Rams at the Coliseum, connecting on both field goal attempts, including a career-best 58-yarder, and drilling all seven of his extra points.

What remains to be seen is what he might give the Rams on kickoffs, after L.A. once again gave up returns to the 32, 33, and 47-yard lines last week against Seattle.

Gay didn't kick off as a rookie, as Tampa Bay has punter Bradley Pinion, who thrives in that role.

Don't Go Anywhere

Whatever the score at halftime, don't stray from your television (or radio) this Monday night.

The Rams (+70 scoring margin) and Bucs (+67) are the two best second half teams in the NFL.

This figures to be a playoff-caliber collision and a fight to the finish.

Looking Ahead

Just a reminder that the next opponent, San Francisco, has a bye this weekend.

So the Rams will get home from Tampa early Tuesday morning to begin a short week against a well-rested rival. Tough break from the schedule-makers, and they'll get no sympathy from the injury-depleted 49ers. But the Rams can't change it; let's see if they can overcome it.

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