There’s no need to conjure up a big argument about what it means that the Los Angeles Rams beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in one of the wildest NFL playoff games ever on Sunday, 30–27. The Rams probably should have thrown the ball a bit more toward the end, rather than exuding no ability to run effectively while trying to preserve a late lead. And they probably should not have fumbled while trying to ice the game with three minutes left. The Bucs probably should have made sure Cooper Kupp, one of the best wideouts in the world, couldn’t get behind their entire defense for a 44-yard completion in the final seconds to set up a winning field goal. But it’s good that these teams did (or didn’t do) these things, because it resulted in a wonderfully absurd playoff game that will reserve an early slot on various “best of the decade” lists to be built in 2029.
The guy at center stage was the same guy who’s been at center stage of more of these marquee games than anyone else for the past 20 years, and this one kicked off only hours after ESPN reported that he might not play any more after this season ends. And now, for Tom Brady, it has.
There were a lot of wild things in the second half of this game. I would submit that the most shocking thing about the Bucs-Rams Divisional Round Extravaganza of 2022 was that so many wild things happened… and they didn’t really involve Brady at all. The grandest player of his time played in the grandest game of the year, on a day when more subtext swirled around him than anyone else on the field, and he was a relatively peripheral piece of the whole thing. What??
Brady, of course, fought like hell to give the Bucs a chance to get lucky after falling down 27–3. A gorgeously dropped-in deep ball he threw to Mike Evans, over the head of all-pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, got the Bucs to within a touchdown with 3:27 left to play:
Brady finished with 329 yards on 30-of-54 passing, while the Bucs ran the ball only 14 times all day. So he was pretty involved! But in the game’s most stunning moments, Brady was just sort of there as a bit player, in a way that was jarring to watch. The plays that nearly ended the Rams’ season happened when Brady was off the field, and were mostly self-inflicted screw-ups.
The moment the game went from intriguing to dramatic was a Cam Akers fumble with just over two minutes left, when the Bucs trailed by a touchdown and seemed no better than 50-50 to even get the ball back. Brady was watching from the sideline, though you weren’t the only person watching who assumed that he, personally, put a spell on the Rams’ offense.
It felt at that point (at least to this viewer) that Brady was going to take things from there. He’d guide the Bucs to a game-tying touchdown and win the game in overtime to cap a historic comeback, as he’d done to the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51 and in other variations to dozens of teams throughout his career. Brady did get the Bucs downfield to a tying touchdown, and he threw a couple of darts on the drive. There was still an Easter egg here, though. After Brady threw a 9-yard completion on third down to tight end Cameron Brate, on which Brate certainly appeared to gain first-down yardage, a video review decided Brate was short. (Brady’s legend kicked off with a controversial video review in a divisional round game, you may recall.)
It’d be fourth-and-1, and the two outcomes that seemed likeliest (again, at least to me) were that Brady would either run the quarterback sneak he’s run so many times throughout his NFL years right into Aaron Donald and the teeth of the Rams, or he’d lob up a touchdown pass right there with the Rams bunched at the line. Maybe the Bucs thought that too, because Brady simply handed to Leonard Fournette, who ran around the right edge for an effortless-looking touchdown.
And then, maybe most surprising at all, the game ended with a quarterback and receiver pulling some inexplicable heroics out of their asses, and the QB wasn’t Brady. From the Rams’ 24-yard line with 35 seconds and no timeouts remaining, Matt Stafford and Cooper Kupp connected for a 20-yard completion after the man covering Kupp fell down. And on the very next play, Kupp beat everyone in the Tampa secondary to essentially decide the game, setting up a chip-shot Matt Gay field goal after a spike:
Kupp played college football at FCS Eastern Washington after not getting any offers in the sport’s top division. Stafford spent his entire career before this year with the moribund Detroit Lions. They’ve both been tremendous this year (Kupp in particular), but this is the kind of underdog-adjacent story and late-game heroics story that’s supposed to be Brady’s.
I don’t like to attach so much narrative significance to a player, because narratives don’t decide games. But in Brady’s career, it has so often and so vexingly felt like they do, as he time and again finds himself in the highest-pressure situations and plays the most central role—even in games where it doesn’t work out for him, like in three Super Bowl losses.
Sunday was the rarest of Brady events: an extraordinary game in which he was heavily involved, where he was barely on the fringe of the most memorable things about it.