TAMPA, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quest to “go for two,” as coach Bruce Arians called it, for an eighth ring for quarterback Tom Brady and for a second boat parade along the Hillsborough River, has fallen short.
There will be no NFC Championship Game in Tampa next week, and there will be no shot at a repeat Super Bowl for the Bucs as they suffered a heartbreaking, 30-27 defeat to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC divisional round Sunday.
Tampa Bay scored 24 straight points to knot the score at 27 with 42 seconds left and clawed its way back thanks to a 55-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Mike Evans and two touchdown runs from Leonard Fournette. But the defense surrendered plays of 20 and 44 yards on the final drive to set up a 30-yard field goal from kicker Matt Gay as time expired.
“It hurts because we had hopes of going to the Super Bowl again to try and repeat,” cornerback Jamel Dean said. “Knowing we were down, we got back into the game and there was hope. And then seeing them kick the field goal just crushed everything.”
“It’s hard,” Arians said. “The finality of this league’s a b----. And that locker room [of] guys has been through hell and back this year, and I love ‘em. They stuck together through all the injuries and everything else. Really, really proud of the comeback – not the finish.”
Now, the San Francisco 49ers, who handed the top-seeded Green Bay Packers a stunning defeat in some of the coldest temperatures ever recorded at Lambeau Field on Saturday, will travel to SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles -- the site of Super Bowl LVI -- for a rematch of the Niners' Week 18 overtime victory. That game allowed the Bucs to move into the No. 2 seed and bump the Rams to No. 4, which meant a cross-country flight to Tampa for Sean McVay and his team, who are now 3-0 against Brady and Arians over the past two years.
The only other time both of the NFC's No. 1 and No. 2 seeds were wiped out in the divisional round was 2008.
Brady, who finished 30-of-54 for 329 yards, one touchdown pass and one interception, was pressured heavily on 17 dropbacks Sunday – the second-most of his time with the Buccaneers – and struggled to connect with his weapons on third down.
“I think there’s a lot of really tough, hard-nosed guys that believe in each other, and we all believe that we’ve just gotta make one play,” Brady said. “But at the end of the day, it was just way too many mistakes. … They made plenty of mistakes too. I wouldn’t say it was a perfect game by them either. But in the end, they just made one more play than us.”
His seemingly bulletproof offensive line that played 1,769 snaps together since his arrival suffered not one, but two colossal blows last week. All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs suffered a right high ankle sprain and couldn't play, while Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen suffered a left ankle sprain and wasn't close to full strength.
“I’ve got to give Josh Wells a lot of credit,” Arians said. “He was playing on a really bad leg.”
They were able to get a big piece back Sunday in Fournette, who spent the last month on injured reserve with a hamstring injury and missed the wild-card round. But they were without wide receivers Chris Godwin, who suffered a torn ACL in Week 15, and Antonio Brown, who was released.
Wide receiver Breshad Perriman, who started last week against the Philadelphia Eagles, was also ruled out Friday with hip and abdominal injuries, and Cyril Grayson, who caught the game-winning touchdown in Week 17, was held out with a hamstring injury.
Like their Week 3 loss to the Rams, the Bucs' starting defense -- finally 100% healthy for the first time all season -- was unable to consistently pressure quarterback Matthew Stafford, who picked apart their blitzes. They had no answers for MVP candidate Cooper Kupp, either, as the Rams receiver got wide open on a 70-yard touchdown when safety Mike Edwards faltered in two-deep coverage.
They did manage to get some takeaways, though. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting both had fumble recoveries to keep the Bucs afloat, with Murphy-Bunting's setting up a 1-yard touchdown run by Fournette to make it 27-13 heading into the fourth quarter. Fournette also scored the tying touchdown with 42 seconds left after Ndamukong Suh forced a Cam Akers fumble that was recovered by Lavonte David, one of four fumble recoveries by Tampa Bay.
But defensive coordinator’s Todd Bowles all-out blitz failed to pressure Stafford, and it left Winfield Jr. alone in the middle of the field on Kupp.
“It was an all-out blitz. We should have gotten a ton of pressure,” Arians said, adding that he doesn’t second-guess the decision, but he wasn’t sure everyone was on the same page, something David, a team captain, agreed with.
“It was just the situation – hurry up, guys scrambling all over the place trying to get lined up – just an unfortunate situation,” David said. “Some people got the call, some people didn’t. It is what it is. They made a great play, they had a great playcall lined up and they made that play. It just sucks for us to lose in that manner, from battling back the way we did.”
But is this how it all ends for Brady? Is this the lasting image fans will have of his 22-year career? Battered, bloody-lipped and falling just short of yet another epic comeback win, reminiscent of his Super Bowl LI victory against the Atlanta Falcons and the 38 other times in his career (six in the playoffs) that he surged back from a double-digit deficit?
Sources told ESPN's Jeff Darlington and Adam Schefter that Brady will mull his options over the next month and possibly longer before making that decision.
Arians said there is no timeline for when a conversation will be had with Brady.
“It’s up to Tom,” Arians said. “Just like all veteran players.”
The Bucs were lauded for their salary cap gymnastics this past offseason to retain all 22 of their starters on offense and defense, which hadn't been done by a defending Super Bowl champion since the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers. But health wasn't on their side. History wasn’t either. They fought tooth-and-nail, but they came up short.
Of the 11 previous defending Super Bowl champions who played in the wild-card round the next season, none advanced past the divisional playoffs, including two teams led by Brady. Also, no team had won six straight playoff games since Brady's New England Patriots won 10 straight from 2001 to '05.
Now that the focus shifts to next year, there's much uncertainty.
Arians said after the game that he will return for 2022. But at quarterback, the Bucs don't have a viable successor on their roster. Their two backups? Journeyman Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin, while rookie Kyle Trask, who was selected in the second round of the draft, has been inactive all season and has gotten few practice reps.
The Bucs have 24 players on their active roster who are set to become unrestricted free agents. The cascade of players who could defect if Brady retires could be even more devastating.
On a day when the Bucs needed to be at full strength -- against a Rams team that has been "Super Bowl or bust" since, ironically, the same year Brady handed them a 13-3 defeat in Super Bowl LIII -- they weren't. They just didn't have enough.
“We scratched and clawed,” Evans said. “They kept giving us chances. We took advantage of ‘em. We just couldn’t get the stop in the end.”
“Obviously we showed a lot of fight,” Brady said. “But at the end of the day, you lose a game, you lose a game.”