TAMPA, Fla. — It’s a game that several Tampa Bay Buccaneers players and coaches have replayed in their minds over and over and over.
Quarterback Tom Brady even said it played a big role in his decision to come out of retirement.
Last season’s playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round doesn’t sting any less nine months later. It was talked about all offseason, even more once a rematch date was set for Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS) in Tampa.
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It’s just been tucked aside as more pressing issues have arisen this season — chiefly injuries and a 3-5 hole they’re desperately trying to climb out of, and in the case of Brady, a highly publicized divorce that was finalized last week.
“I still got a chip on my shoulder from the Rams,” cornerback Carlton Davis III said.
Last season, the Bucs became the first team to bring back all of its starters after winning the Super Bowl the prior season. They had an offense putting up 30 points per game and home advantage throughout the playoffs, a luxury they did not have the year before.
But the loss of All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs, a receiving corps decimated by injuries, including the loss of Chris Godwin, and a defensive front unable to get to quarterback Matthew Stafford on the final drive doomed them on Jan. 23. A last-second field goal propelled the Rams to a 30-27 victory, and they’d go on to win the Super Bowl.
“We blew it,” coach Todd Bowles said, who was the defensive coordinator last season.
Bowles’ much-criticized cover-0 call saw six defenders rush Stafford as he fired a 44-yard pass to wide receiver Cooper Kupp, setting up Matt Gay’s winning kick.
“You have to learn to make peace and live with it,” Bowles said. “Do you forget it? Never in life. I can remember a lot of bad plays, as a player and as a coach. … This play will be another one of those things, but that cannot stop you from being you.”
One play before that, on second-and-11, cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting slipped while trying to tackle Kupp, surrendering a 20-yard gain. It’s something he too has had to learn to make peace with.
“He went out on a breaking route, and I just slipped,” Murphy-Bunting said. “That’s just how it was. If I don’t slip, I probably make that play and that game is a whole different game.”
But he doesn’t dwell on it.
“It was nothing I could go back and kind of unwind or rewind from it. It’s just something I’ve gotta live with. And I just gotta play better and be under my feet more, just staying attentive to the details and what I have to do,” Murphy-Bunting said.
Brady, who announced his retirement nine days after the loss, watched the Rams Super Bowl at home and began texting general manager Jason Licht — a precursor to Brady coming out of retirement.
“I just told [my wife], Blair, ‘He’s really into this game,’” Licht said. “‘You can tell he wishes he was playing in this game. I don’t — I don’t think the fire is out.’”
Defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr., who was in coverage with Kupp on that final play said, “Every time I think about it, I’ve got a bad taste in my mouth. … It was tough.”
Mike Evans caught glimpses of the game while he and his wife went out for their anniversary dinner.
“It was bittersweet,” Evans said. “I got friends on that team that I [wanted] to see win, but they beat us, so I kinda [didn’t] want them to win. It was just tough.”
It was a helpless feeling for Wirfs, and also Godwin — who had been placed on injured reserve after tearing his ACL and MCL in Week 15.
“I couldn’t get it out of my head. I was just going through these scenarios — what if I could have done something?” Wirfs said.
Godwin added, “I couldn’t help but feel that I could’ve had an impact to help change the outcome of that.”
The Bucs are a much different team now. Many of the moves they made this offseason were in response to what they lacked in that game — healthy receivers, a better push up the middle, better disguises and better tackling.
“We gave up two passes to Cooper Kupp,” cornerback Jamel Dean said of the final series. “That stayed with me the whole offseason. That’s the last thing you remember. So now it’s just like, ‘How can I better myself to ensure I can help out even more?’”
Even Bowles said he wouldn’t change his aggressive style after that final call. But Bowles has called cover 0 only four times this season — all in the loss against the Baltimore Ravens last week. He called it 13 times through the first eight games last season.
So far, the benefits of their personnel moves haven’t been felt. In fact, they’ve gone from “Unfinished Business” — which is what Brady used as a hashtag when he announced his unretirement after only 40 days — to almost finished.
They’re without Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen, who suffered a devastating knee injury to open training camp. Newcomers Julio Jones and Russell Gage have been hobbled by injuries since being added to the roster via free agency for wide receiver depth, with Jones missing five games.
Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who was signed to replace Ndamukong Suh, has been sidelined since suffering a foot injury in Week 2 but was able to return to practice last week. His presence, when paired with defensive tackle Vita Vea, could dramatically shift the Bucs’ run defense, which has taken a nosedive this year.
Veteran safety Logan Ryan, who’s given them more versatility in their coverages, has been out since also suffering a foot injury in Week 4 and was placed on injured reserve.
The Bucs’ latest injury may be the worst of all. Outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, their top edge rusher is now out for the season after tearing his Achilles last week. And Winfield, who suffered a concussion in Week 7, was ruled out on Friday.
Sitting in third place in the NFC West, with possibly even worse protection issues, the Rams (3-4) aren’t where they were hoping to be either.
Stafford has more than taken his share of hits, but the Bucs aren’t overlooking a team that ended their quest for back-to-back Super Bowls last season.
“This is a good football team, and it’s a team we haven’t played very well against the last couple years,” Brady said. “They run a good program. … They play well under pressure. A lot of guys step up for them. They’ve got some of the elite players in the NFL. It’s good competition, and we’ve had that. We just haven’t matched it.”
None of those things are lost on Bowles either, whose emphasis after coming off a Thursday game was to hit the reset button by getting back to fundamentals. But the feeling around this game has certainly changed.
“It really doesn’t matter who we play this week,” Bowles said. “We need to work on ourselves.”
So, no, the Bucs won’t be using this game as a barometer to test where they stand among Super Bowl contenders, having spent the last three weeks calling games “must-win,” and still losing.
But forgetting what happened the last time these two teams met won’t be easily overlooked either.
“We’re a completely different team,” safety Mike Edwards said, “but at the end of the day, we know some of those guys stepped in and stopped us from winning a championship. So we definitely still think about that.”