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Bucs’ comeback isn’t enough, leaving Tom Brady’s future uncertain after shocking loss to Rams

Los Angeles Rams kicker Matt Gay (8) kicks a game-winning field goal against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (John Raoux/AP)
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TAMPA — Tom Brady very nearly added to his football lore with another memorably great, next-to-impossible postseason comeback. But the Los Angeles Rams gathered themselves just in time to keep cashing in on the big bets they made on themselves while sending Brady home to ponder his NFL future.

As speculation mounted about the prospect that this was the final go-round for the quarterback for the ages, Brady just failed in his bid to reach the 15th conference championship game of his storied career. He led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back from a 24-point third-quarter deficit. But the Rams prevailed, 30-27, in a thriller here Sunday in an NFC divisional-round playoff game at Raymond James Stadium.

After the Buccaneers tied the game with 42 seconds remaining, Los Angeles kicker Matt Gay drilled a 30-yard field goal as time expired to win it for the Rams.

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“It was a great comeback,” Brady said. “It took a lot. Guys made a lot of great plays to get us back into it. You don’t have a lot of margin for error at that point. ... It’s just the reality of football. It’s a tough sport. It’s tough to win.”

The fourth-seeded Rams will host the sixth-seeded San Francisco 49ers in Inglewood, Calif., in next Sunday’s NFC title game. In their season of high-stakes roster moves, the Rams are one triumph away from playing the Super Bowl on their home field at SoFi Stadium.

“I just love the way that we found a way at the end,” Rams Coach Sean McVay said. “Now we know we’ve got to minimize those things. [But] I think we all know it’s much easier to be able to clean those things up when you find a way to get it done.”

Quarterback Matthew Stafford had completions of 20 and 44 yards to wide receiver Cooper Kupp to set up the winning kick for the Rams. Stafford threw for 366 yards and two touchdowns on the day. He also had a rushing touchdown. The Rams raced to a 20-3 halftime lead and stretched it to 27-3 in the third quarter. Kupp finished with nine catches for 183 yards.

“You’ve just got to find a way to win,” Rams linebacker Von Miller said.

The Rams avoided going bust in their Super Bowl-or-bust season after trading for Stafford and Miller and adding wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. following his release by the Cleveland Browns. They ended the attempt by Brady and the second-seeded Buccaneers to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

Brady had his personal nine-game winning streak in the divisional round of the playoffs, spanning two franchises, ended. If this was his final NFL game, it was nearly epic but, ultimately, uncharacteristically disappointing.

“Every team is really qualified when you get to the final eight, then the final four, then the final two,” Brady said in his postgame news conference. “And it doesn’t feel good to lose any one of those games, and I’ve lost [at] each of those stages. At the end, there’s only one team that’s going to be happy. … It all sucks to lose in the end.”

Brady once won a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots after facing a 28-3 deficit to the Atlanta Falcons. This time, he threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Evans with 3:20 left. The Buccaneers got the ball back on a fumble by Rams running back Cam Akers, and tailback Leonard Fournette scored on a nine-yard touchdown run on a fourth-and-inches play. But the defense allowed Stafford and the Rams to respond oh-so-quickly.

“I’m really proud of the comeback. ... It’s a shame we didn’t complete it,” Buccaneers Coach Bruce Arians said.

Brady threw one interception in a 30-for-54, 329-yard passing performance. He was penalized for expressing his displeasure to referee Shawn Hochuli too forcefully during the first half and lost a fourth-quarter fumble on a sack by Miller. Brady was playing with a depleted corps of wide receivers and a patchwork offensive line.

He declined to specify afterward whether this was his final NFL game.

“I haven’t put a lot of thought to it,” Brady said.

The retirement speculation about Brady began last week when Rob Ninkovich, a former linebacker who was Brady’s Patriots teammate, said on ESPN that “it wouldn’t surprise” him if Brady decides “to walk away and do whatever he wants to do” following this postseason. It intensified Sunday with pregame reports by ESPN and the NFL Network.

Brady turns 45 in August. His contract with the Buccaneers runs through the 2022 season. He has spoken in the past about playing until he’s 45. More recently, he has left open the possibility of continuing to play even longer than that. He led the NFL this season in passing attempts, completions, passing yards and touchdown passes.

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His legacy is as unassailable and enduring as it gets. He has seven Super Bowl victories, six of them with New England. He demonstrated last season that he could secure a Lombardi Trophy away from the Patriots and Coach Bill Belichick. He is the NFL’s career leader in passing yards and touchdown passes, among so many other things.

“Hopefully we get him back … the best player ever, one of the best teammates,” Evans said.

Said Arians: “That’s totally up to Tom.”

Stafford threw first-half touchdown passes of seven yards to tight end Kendall Blanton and 70 yards to Kupp. Meanwhile, there was nothing but misery early on for Brady and the Buccaneers. Brady was given the first unsportsmanlike conduct penalty of his NFL career for yelling at Hochuli about a non-call when he was hit in the head by Miller. Brady emerged with a bloody lip. Hochuli said in a pool report that Brady “got in my face in an aggressive manner and used abusive language.”

The Buccaneers had their issues with Hochuli. Defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh was penalized for taunting after getting up and saying something to Stafford, his former Detroit Lions teammate, following a hit on an incompletion. Suh could be heard saying to Hochuli: “You see him kick me?”

Stafford’s touchdown on a one-yard quarterback sneak in the third quarter made it a 27-3 game. The Buccaneers made it competitive with a field goal and Fournette’s one-yard touchdown run off a fumble by Kupp. They got the ball back, trailing by 14 points, after a bizarre exchange of turnovers. But Brady threw a fourth-down incompletion and an illegal hit by Rams safety Eric Weddle was ruled to have come after the change of possession. The Buccaneers failed again on fourth down on their following drive. And yet they still managed to make things as interesting as possible down the stretch.

“It was something else,” McVay said.

Continue reading for highlights and real-time analysis from Sunday’s game.

6:39 p.m.
Headshot of Nicki Jhabvala
Nicki Jhabvala: And then there was one. After the Tennessee Titans fell to the Cincinnati Bengals on a last-second field goal, and the Green Bay Packers lost to the San Francisco 49ers on a last-second field goal, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers followed suit and lost to the L.A. Rams on a last-second field goal after clawing their way back in the final minute.That leaves only the Kansas City Chiefs as the remaining higher seed in the divisional round of the playoffs this year. They host the Buffalo Bills on Sunday night in a rematch of last year’s AFC title game with the hope of hosting it again. The Chiefs would become the first team to host the game in four consecutive seasons.
Nicki Jhabvala, Reporter covering Washington's NFL team
5:58 p.m.
Headshot of Nicki Jhabvala
Nicki Jhabvala: The Rams were already stacked when they traded for Von Miller before the deadline in early November. But Miller’s arrival took L.A.'s defensive line to another level, giving opponents yet another worry up front. After missing last season and part of the 2021 season in Denver because of injuries, Miller has started to look more like himself — especially his playoff form that wreaked havoc on Brady in the 2015 AFC Championship, when Miller and the Broncos’ defense hit him 17 times.Including Sunday against the Bucs, Miller has recorded at least one sack in six consecutive games, dating back to Week 15 in the Rams’ win over the Seahawks. He and Aaron Donald have put the Bucs’ offensive line to work and have pressured Brady early and often to throw him off his spot, tallying three sacks so far. Brady also suffered a busted lip, courtesy of a late hit from Miller that Brady argued to earn an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Nicki Jhabvala, Reporter covering Washington's NFL team
4:12 p.m.
Headshot of Nicki Jhabvala
Nicki Jhabvala: Matthew Stafford needed only 32 seconds at the start of the second quarter to find a wide-open Cooper Kupp for a 70-yard touchdown. The play is the longest postseason touchdown for the Rams since Kurt Warner found Isaac Bruce for a 73-yard score in Super Bowl XXXIV.For the Bucs, it was a total coverage bust, due to miscommunication in the backfield between cornerback Carlton Davis III and safety Mike Edwards. Davis turned his back to Kupp as the receiver sped past him, believing he had help over the top that never came.The mistake is baffling, but more so because it’s the second time it’s happened for the Bucs when facing the Rams. Compare today’s touchdown to the 75-yard touchdown catch by DeSean Jackson in Week 3.
Nicki Jhabvala, Reporter covering Washington's NFL team
3:46 p.m.
Headshot of Nicki Jhabvala
Nicki Jhabvala: The Rams jumped to a 10-3 lead in the first quarter by relying primarily on Matthew Stafford and yards collected after the catch by his receivers. Of L.A.’s 122 net yards, 106 were passing. In its first possession, L.A. picked up five consecutive first downs. Three of those were pass plays of 15 yards or more: a 17-yard catch by Cooper Kupp, a 20-yard catch-and-run by Odell Beckham Jr., and a 29-yard completion over the middle to tight end Tyler Higbee.Cam Akers has single-handedly managed the run game, with four carries for 14 yards. Two of those carries were for first downs.
Nicki Jhabvala, Reporter covering Washington's NFL team