Los Angeles Rams stave off furious Tampa Bay Buccaneers comeback to deny Tom Brady a shot at eighth ring
Having seen his team steamrolled to a 27-3 deficit with just over three minutes of the third quarter remaining, Brady looked set to write another fabled chapter in his legendary career as the 44-year-old quarterback helped drag his team to level scoring.
Yet his dreams of completing a famous comeback in overtime -- as well as a shot at an eighth Super Bowl ring -- were dashed by Matt Gay's 30-yard field goal as the clock expired following a frenetic final few minutes.
Incredibly, it meant that the first three divisional round games were all decided by last second field goals.
And after the Green Bay Packers' defeat to the San Francisco 49ers, it also means this year will be the first time since 2009 that neither Aaron Rodgers or Brady will feature in a conference championship game, according ESPN Stats and Info.
Already history makers as the first venue to host a conference championship game and Super Bowl in the same season, a win for the Rams at the SoFi Stadium against the 49ers will see them become the second team in NFL history to play at home for the Super Bowl.
The only other team to have played at home for the NFL's showpiece occasion was Brady's Tampa Bay at last year's Super Bowl 55, which swept aside the Kansas City Chiefs in Florida.
Having gone 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions without a playoff win, quarterback Matthew Stafford now has two in his first season with the Rams.
The 33-year-old went 28-for-38 for 366 passing yards without an interception, throwing for two touchdowns and rushing for one more as the Rams roared towards a seemingly inevitable victory across the first three quarters.
A stunning, 70-yard touchdown throw to Cooper Kupp in the closing stages of the second quarter -- just moments after being sacked -- proved the pick of the bunch on a landmark night for the Rams' number nine.
Running back Leonard Fournette -- once again reinforcing his nickname as 'Playoff Lenny' -- gave the Buccaneers a glimmer of hope with a one-yard touchdown rush, but trailing 27-13 with just over three minutes to go, the home side needed a miracle.
Enter Brady -- the NFL's all-time passing yards leader -- hurling a stunning 55-yard pass to Mike Evans to jumpstart an exhilarating finale that saw the Bucs regain possession through a fumble before leveling via Fournette's second TD with just over 100 seconds remaining.
Stafford first recovered his own fumble and led his team up the field with two critical passes to Kupp -- of 20 and 44 yards respectively -- before spiking the ball to stop the clock, allowing Gay to step up and kick the Rams into the NFC championship game.
"All the guys on the sidelines were like, 'Man, you were in a dark place,'" Stafford laughed when asked by reporters to describe his mindset during the closing stages.
"Sometimes, you gotta go to those places to make some plays happen.
"I live for those kind of moments -- I would have loved to have been taking a knee up three scores but it's a whole lot more fun when you gotta make a play like that to win the game.
"Steal somebody's soul -- that's what it feels like sometimes where they're sitting there going, 'Man, we just had this great comeback,' and you get to reach in there and take it from them. That's a whole lot of fun."
Brady faces questions on his future
While Stafford reveled in his second playoff win, Brady reflected on missing out on a 36th following a disappointing end to another excellent season.
The 44-year-old ended the campaign with a career-high 5,316 yards -- the second-time in his career he has surpassed the 5,000-yard mark during a season -- yet with a year left on his contract, questions will now inevitably swirl about what's next for the Bucs quarterback.
They began during Brady's press conference after the game, though the quarterback was coy on his future.
"I haven't put a lot of thought into it. We'll just take it day by day and see where we're at," Brady said.
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