Los Angeles Rams' defense sets tone in wild-card win, readies for rematch with Tom Brady

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- If one moment captured how soundly the Los Angeles Rams beat the Arizona Cardinals, it was Odell Beckham Jr.'s completion to Cam Akers down the right sideline.

Everything seemed to work for the Rams' offense, even a receiver throwing deep to a running back on a trick play that had proved difficult to execute in windy conditions during the week of practice leading up to Monday night's wild-card playoff game.

It was also an illustration of how dominant the Rams' defense was. Because once Akers hauled in that 40-yard completion, Beckham had 12 more passing yards than Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray had thrown for at that point of the game.

This was nearly three minutes into the third quarter, mind you.

By the time the final whistle blew on the Rams' 34-11 win, Murray had only 134 passing yards, plus 6 rushing. The 183 total yards Los Angeles allowed were its fewest of the season, its fifth fewest in any game under coach Sean McVay and tied for third fewest by any team in a playoff game over the past 10 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

It was the type of performance that suggests the Rams will have much more than a fighting chance in the divisional round on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium against seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady and the No. 2 seed Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3 p.m. ET, Fox), as difficult as that matchup will be.

"I think so," McVay answered when asked postgame if that was the Rams' best defensive performance of the season. "Being able to hold a really explosive offense like that, to be able to get a defensive touchdown, a couple turnovers -- just so pleased with those guys and got a great challenge going against Tom Brady next week."

The Rams checked all the boxes on defense Monday night.

They intercepted Murray twice, returning one of those picks for a touchdown. That came on a play in which they nearly dropped Murray in the end zone for what would have been a safety. He avoided the sack and chucked the ball in desperation right to cornerback David Long Jr., who returned it for the shortest pick-six (3 yards) in NFL postseason history.

They made Murray's game-breaking running ability a nonfactor, holding the Cardinals to only 61 rushing yards as a team (3.4-yard average) and kept them without a third-down conversion on nine tries.

And it wasn't just the usual suspects who got it done.

Linebacker Troy Reeder, a 2019 undrafted free agent, applied the pressure that forced Murray's errant pass to Long, who lost his starting cornerback job earlier in the season. (Long hurt his knee later in the game; McVay said Tuesday that the initial indications are positive.)

Defensive tackle Marquise Copeland, another 2019 UDFA, came down with the Rams' other interception.

They got a sack and three tackles for loss from Von Miller and a half sack from Aaron Donald, one of their two first-team All-Pros along with cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

"To be able to get that many guys involved in making those kind of plays," McVay said, "that's what you love."

The Rams are hoping to get Taylor Rapp back this week from the concussion that sidelined him against Arizona. His absence and Jordan Fuller's season-ending ankle injury from Week 18 forced Nick Scott and Terrell Burgess into starting roles at safety.

Safety Eric Weddle, a 37-year-old who came out of a two-year retirement to help the Rams, played 19 of 56 defensive snaps. It was his first NFL game in 750 days.

"It was unbelievable what Eric Weddle was able to do, and then come in and contribute," McVay said. "He's one of those guys that just elevates. We talk about igniters all the time. You make everybody around you better. That's what Eric Weddle is. I think he's only going to build on this for next week."

The Rams were one of only three teams to beat the Bucs in the regular season, handing them a 34-24 loss in Week 3 at SoFi Stadium. They held Tampa Bay to 35 rushing yards on 13 attempts.

Brady, however, threw for a season-high 432 yards.

"He's the GOAT," said Weddle, who was still living the retired life with zero thought of playing again when the two teams met in September. "I've had many battles with him over my career, and I can't say I ever beat him. So let's break that streak. How about that?

"But they're rolling. They're the defending champs for a reason. I could go on and on about him, just a guy I admire, his competitiveness, how professional he is, how great he is. A lot of weapons. Going to be a huge challenge for us but it doesn't matter who the best team is, it's who plays the best at that given time, so we're up for the challenge."

That challenge will include playing on a short week and traveling across the country against the defending Super Bowl champions. And the Rams will have to do what only one team did during the regular season: beat the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.

And there's also that Brady guy.

"He's got so much experience," McVay said. "He's so smart. He's so twitchy in his upper half. ... He recognizes exactly what's going on. So I think the best way is try to influence and affect, move him off his spot, be able to win with your rushes. Easier said than done. It's why he's the most successful quarterback of all time."