Home-field advantage for the Super Bowl.
Last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers enjoyed the rare luxury and became the first team in NFL history to win a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
The Rams thereafter aimed, traded and spent to position themselves to repeat the feat in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium next month.
So, it’s perhaps fitting that for the Rams to take a step toward fulfilling that mandate, they must defeat Tom Brady and the defending-champion Buccaneers in an NFC divisional-round playoff game Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
The winner will play the San Francisco 49ers, a 13-10 winner Saturday over the Green Bay Packers, in the NFC championship game next Sunday for the chance to advance to the Super Bowl at Stan Kroenke’s $5-billion stadium.
Critics worried how the addition of Odell Beckham Jr. would affect the Rams’ culture, but he has been all good on and off the field, and his teammates love it.
The Rams cannot afford to look ahead — or back — when they play the Buccaneers for the second time this season.
The Rams defeated the Buccaneers, 34-24, Sept. 26 at SoFi Stadium.
But coaches and players for both teams minimize the importance of that game.
Because of injuries and other issues, both rosters turned over during the longest season in NFL history.
The Rams, for example, released receiver DeSean Jackson — who caught a 75-yard touchdown pass against the Buccaneers — traded for linebacker Von Miller and signed receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Receiver Robert Woods was among several players lost because of season-ending injuries.
“Both teams have kind of navigated through a lot of different guys having to step up,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “I think the depth of both of our rosters has shown to be strengths.”
There is another difference, All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey said.
“A lot more is on the line right now,” he said.
The Rams have been in this position before under McVay.
In 2018, they defeated the Dallas Cowboys in a divisional-round game, and then beat the New Orleans Saints in overtime to advance to Super Bowl LIII, where they lost to Brady and the New England Patriots.
In 2020, their season ended with a divisional-round loss to the Packers at Lambeau Field, a defeat that pushed McVay and general manager Les Snead into overdrive to end the era of quarterback Jared Goff.
Two weeks after the loss, they traded Goff, two first-round draft picks and a third-round pick to the Detroit Lions for quarterback Matthew Stafford.
The Rams head into Sunday’s NFC playoff showdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as underdogs despite beating them earlier this season.
Stafford led the Rams to a 12-5 record and the NFC West title.
But this game — and the NFC championship and Super Bowl — are the reason they acquired Stafford: to match up with elite, established quarterbacks such as Brady and the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers.
Stafford, a 13th-year pro, won his first playoff game Monday when he passed for two touchdowns and sneaked for another in a 34-11 wild card victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
Now he will duel with Brady, a seven-time Super Bowl champion who is 35-11 in the playoffs.
“You’re going to have to go out there and score points — and enough to compete with a team that’s led by Tom,” said Stafford, who passed for four touchdowns against the Buccaneers in September. “He’s shown year in and year out how capable he is doing that, especially this time of year.”
The Buccaneers feature a talented defensive front that includes tackles Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh and outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett.
Stafford will operate behind a line that will be without starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who suffered a knee injury against the Cardinals. Joe Noteboom will start in his place.
Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is known for blitzing.
“It’s a lot on my plate — it’s a lot on the plate of our entire offense,” Stafford said of handling the pressure from all angles. “At the same time, we’re excited about the opportunity.
“Sometimes you play aggressive coordinators. You try to be aggressive right back to them and see what happens.”
The Rams defense will try to neutralize the 44-year-old Brady, who is not as mobile as younger, fleeter quarterbacks but remains a master at moving in the pocket.
Tom Brady has seen it all on his way to collecting seven Super Bowl wins, and the Rams realize the only way to stop the Buccaneers quarterback is with a vicious pass rush.
In September, the Rams took a 21-7 lead over the Buccaneers early in the third quarter, forcing Brady to pass on nearly every down. He completed 41 of 55 passes for 432 yards and a touchdown.
“Hopefully, we’re not sitting there throwing it every down like we had to in that ballgame,” Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said.
Ramsey said that while some elements Sunday will be different from the first game between the teams, others should be the same.
“We executed our game plan pretty well,” he said. “And we played with like a lot of energy out there. Even when things weren’t going well.
“And I like to point that out to my teammates to make sure that we do those things again, and then all the new things that we have to do.”
Though pressure will be on the quarterbacks to perform, Miller cautioned that Stafford should not play as if he is solely responsible for carrying the Rams.
The pass rush must rattle Brady, Miller said.
“Tom Brady’s going to make plays,” he said. “We got to make plays as well.
“And whenever the time’s up, we got to make sure we the ones dancing. We got to make sure we’re the ones that come out on top.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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