Los Angeles Rams Will Be Buccaneers' Biggest Challenge In NFC in 2021

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystFebruary 11, 2021

Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) gestures during an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)
Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in full celebration mode after their blowout win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. Boat parades have been held. Lombardi Trophies have been thrown.

While the Buccaneers are enjoying the spoils of victory, the other 15 teams in the NFC have begun pursuit of a similar goal—ruining the party in Tampa and preventing Tom Brady and the Buccaneers from a repeat performance as conference champions.

A handful of teams have the talent to pull that off, but one squad stands above the rest as the biggest threat to dethrone the Buccaneers in 2021. It's the team that lost to Brady and the New England Patriots back in Super Bowl LIII: the Los Angeles Rams.

The Rams already pulled off a massive trade this offseason that shook up the balance of power in the NFC, sending two first-round picks (in 2022 and 2023), a third-round pick in 2021 and 2016 No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff to Detroit for veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Al Godlis/Associated Press

With the Lions in the opening stages of another rebuild, Stafford told the team he'd prefer to finish his career elsewhere. According to Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, the 33-year-old wanted a chance to play in a Super Bowl, and that wasn't going to happen in Motown.

"I've always wanted to play in those big games, I feel like I will excel in those situations," Stafford told Albom. "I wanted to shoot my shot."

Once Rams head coach Sean McVay knew Stafford was obtainable, it didn't take long for the young coach to sign off on doing whatever it took to land him, per Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated: 

"McVay was the one who called Rams owner Stan Kroenke on Saturday to sign off on the team going the extra mile to get it done, spurred by some extra tape work he and Snead did. That work only cemented what McVay loved about Stafford already—how quickly he processes, his pocket movement, his play urgency, his ability to throw off platform or in rhythm and his tough, fearless style—which pushed Snead into the mode where he was going into the afternoon with the intention of getting a deal done."

The Rams went all-in to obtain Stafford, which is a very Rams thing to do. They haven't made a pick in the first round since moving up to take Goff in 2016.

But while Goff had his moments—including a Super Bowl run in 2018—Stafford is a clear and significant improvement for L.A. at the game's most important position.

After topping 4,600 passing yards in both 2018 and 2019, Goff dipped to 3,952 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions this year. His completion percentage was slightly higher than Stafford's, but Stafford had the better year in just about every other statistical category despite playing behind a much worse offensive line and being without No. 1 receiver Kenny Golladay for much of the season.

Goff has never thrown more than 32 touchdowns in a season, while has met or exceeded that number twice. Stafford has also surpassed Goff's career high in passing yards (4,688) twice. He's substantially better than Goff at making quick reads, identifying blitzers and finding the open receiver, which should allow McVay to open up his playbook that much more.

The veteran quarterback is also about to get the best supporting cast of his career.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Neither Cooper Kupp (92/974/3) or Robert Woods (90/936/6) went over the 1,000-yard mark in 2020. But both receivers flirted with that number, saw over 120 targets each and are in the prime of their careers. With Josh Reynolds about to hit free agency and the Rams staring down some significant salary-cap issues, Reynolds is likely a goner. But the team spent a 2020 second-round pick on Van Jefferson as his replacement.

But wait: There's more!

Tyler Higbee is a capable veteran tight end who presents Stafford with another weapon underneath. Second-year running back Cam Akers had a fantastic end to his rookie season and offers the Rams talent and versatility as a runner and receiver. After playing behind a line in Detroit that ranked 21st in adjusted sack rate at Football Outsiders in 2020, Stafford joins a Rams team that was second.

Is Stafford guaranteed to succeed in L.A.? No. But he's set up as well for it as he ever has been. He also won't have to carry this Rams team, either.

The defense is perfectly capable of holding up its end of the deal.

Last year, the Rams fielded the NFL's top-ranked defense, allowing only 281.9 yards per game. Los Angeles was the only team in the NFL that checked in under 300 yards allowed per contest. The Rams led the league in pass defense (190.7 yards per game), ranked third in run defense (91.3 yards per game), allowed the fewest points per game (18.5) in the NFL and led the NFC in sacks with 53.

Other than that, L.A. was just OK defensively.

Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

The Rams boast three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, one of the league's best cornerbacks in Jalen Ramsey, and talent from front to back. But while Donald just picked up his third DPOY award (tying J.J. Watt and Lawrence Taylor for the most ever), he made it clear that his sights are set higher.

"I know I still got a lot of work to do, a lot of room for improvement," Donald said, via Stu Jackson of NFL.com. "The ultimate goal is to be holding that trophy up. That's what we're chasing, that's what I'm chasing, that's what I want to accomplish. And I until I accomplish that, I ain't going to be satisfied."

Donald and the Rams have never had a better chance of accomplishing that goal than now.

Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL. The Rams play in the same division as Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks, who captured the NFC West in 2020. They were bounced from the postseason by reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, who will be right back in the Super Bowl mix in 2021.

And then there's Brady and the Buccaneers, who aren't going to give up the NFC without a fight.

But the Rams took two of three from Seattle last year (including a Wild Card Round game) before making their upgrade under center. The addition of Stafford narrows the gap offensively between the Packers and Rams, who hold a sizable edge against Green Bay defensively.

On paper, no team in the conference is better positioned to take a run at toppling the Tompa Bay Bradyneers.

And Matthew Stafford might just play in that big game yet.