TAMPA – The epic comeback was not completed, after all. And no repeat crown.
If this is it for Tom Brady, what a downer.
Brady and the defending Super Bowl champions were clipped by the Los Angeles Rams, 30-27, in an NFC divisional playoff result that was almost too wild to believe.
The Rams, with new quarterback Matthew Stafford living up to the promise envisioned when he was obtained from Detroit in an offseason trade, are headed home to face their NFC West rival San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game next Sunday.
Brady, meanwhile, could be headed into the sundown of his storied career. The marquee quarterback hasn’t committed to return next season, which means the Tampa Bay era just might be finished.
“I haven’t put a lot of thought into it," Brady said after the game. "I’ll just take it day by day. And we’ll see.”
Regardless, his setback on Sunday goes down as a deflating performance – and this includes his supporting cast, too – that does no justice to a career marked by a record seven Super Bowl victories.
Brady went down swinging, for sure. The Bucs rallied from a 27-3 deficit to tie the game in the final minute – only to lose the game in the final seconds when the defense couldn’t prevent the Rams from a comeback of their own.
Not only did Brady leave with a big L, he drew the first unsportsmanlike conduct penalty of his 22-year career after yelling at referee Shawn Hochuli during a heated, second-quarter exchange after he absorbed a hit from Von Miller.
And Brady endured a bloody lip, too, a picture that said the proverbial 1,000 words about the pain inflicted on him by the Rams’ defensive front.
It figured that if any team would stop the bid by the Bucs to become the first repeat Super Bowl champion since Brady led the New England Patriots to a Super Bowl crown in the 2004 season, it would be the Rams.
Since Brady arrived in 2020, he’s gone 0-for-LA – losing all three matchups against Sean McVay’s team.
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In September at Los Angeles, the Bucs fell 34-24 in a Week 3 contest when Brady passed 55 times and was also the team’s leading rusher, while Stafford burned Tampa Bay for 343 yards and 4 TDs. In November of 2020, the Rams scratched out a 27-24 win here in a game when Brady was intercepted twice by Jordan Fuller.
Now this. The Bucs didn’t score a touchdown on Sunday until 12 seconds remained in the third quarter – and even Leonard Fournette’s 1-yard plunge was iffy after Tampa Bay was set up at the Rams 30-yard line by a Cooper Kupp fumble that was recovered by Sean Murphy-Bunting. The drive was kept alive by a fourth-and-9 completion to Scotty Miller, who had to double-clutch the football to secure the first down. It was that close.
Earlier, the Bucs settled for a pair of Ryan Succop field goals and had a drive stall when Succop missed a 48-yard kick. It all added up to distress for an offense working with a depleted wide receiver corps and a battered offensive line whose best player, All-Pro right tackle Tristin Wirfs, missed the game while nursing an ankle injury.
Of course, Brady is known for making magic. It would take something akin to the time Brady led the Patriots back from a 28-3 deficit to defeat the Falcons in Super Bowl 51.
Ah, the memories.
But in this case it was simple: Not here. Not now.
Brady, trailing 27-13, fumbled away his first snap of the fourth quarter when sacked by Miller, who also made the recovery. After the Bucs inexplicably regained possession on the next play, when Stafford mishandled a shotgun snap, Brady and Co. parlayed their gift field position into a turnover on downs.
Later in the quarter, another drive ended when Brady’s fourth-and-9 throw sailed over the head of tight end Cameron Brate over the middle, with a chance, without a prayer.
But then, a miracle play. Brady connected with Mike Evans for a 55-yard touchdown – Evans burned Jalen Ramsey’s single coverage on a go route – that cut the margin to 27-20 with 3:20 on the clock.
The ensuring Rams possession was just what the Bucs would have ordered. Ndamukong Suh forced a Cam Akers fumble, recovered by Lavonte David at the L.A. 30 yard-line with 2:25 remaining.
Touchdown or go home.
Brady’s been there before.
It came down to fourth-and-inches from just inside the Rams’ 9-yard line, with 46 seconds on the clock. How many times have we seen a Brady sneak in this situation? Instead, with the Rams packing the inside of the line, he handed the ball to Fournette, who sidestepped Eric Weddle’s attempted tackle in the backfield and bounced off right tackle. Touchdown. Bedlam. And after Succop’s PAT, a tie game.
It was all too good to be true.
The Rams staged a comeback of their own, with Stafford hitting Kupp for a 44-yard completion that set up Matt Gay’s game-winning, 30-yard field goal as time expired.
Now we’re left to wonder whether the clock has run out on Brady’s career.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rams top Tom Brady's wild rally, end Bucs' Super Bowl repeat bid