NFC Divisional Round Preview: Bucs, Brady cope with injured o-line

Sportsnet's Jesse Rubinoff examines how the ageless-wonder Tom Brady was able to rejuvenate his career with a move to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and how he's now pushing for a fourth NFL MVP and a record eighth Super Bowl victory at 44 years old.

Let us begin with a Divisional Round fun fact you’ve probably heard a thousand times this week: Tampa Bay Buccaneers starting quarterback Tom Brady is older than the head coaches of the other three remaining NFC playoff teams. Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur and San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan are both 42 and Los Angeles’s Sean McVay turns 36 next week. Brady is 44.

Also, while we’re at it, let’s take a moment and say a prayer for Washington Football Team supporters. It’s gotta be tough thinking back to when LaFleur, Shanahan and McVay were all assistants on the coaching staff back in 2013, yet the team decided to hire Jay Gruden as head coach and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now onto Sunday's game.

Can Brady advance to his 15th career conference championship game? Or do the Rams have what it takes to knock off the MVP frontrunner?

Here’s a closer look at the NFC Divisional Round matchup.

*All betting figures below current as of publication.


Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 23 @ 3 p.m. ET/ Noon PT
Betting lines: Buccaneers favoured by 2.5 | O/U: 48

Can Donald, Rams take advantage of Bucs’ o-line injuries
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: All the defence needs to do is get pressure on Brady and they can win.

Ah yes, the cliché formula to beat Brady rears its head again this weekend only this time there’s reason to think Brady will be fighting an uphill battle against the Rams.

The biggest concern is the statuses of All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs and Pro Bowl centre Ryan Jensen. Both offensive linemen sustained ankle injuries against the Eagles and Brady was sacked four times after being sacked just twice in the previous month. Wirfs and Jensen practised Friday but were limited.

Tampa only gained 35 rushing yards back in Week 3. Brady actually led his team with 14 yards and a touchdown that week and he also threw for 432 yards on a season-high 55 attempts. Leonard Fournette’s potential return to the lineup won’t be as meaningful to the run game if the o-line is significantly compromised, although his usage running routes out of the backfield is something the Rams will need to account for.

Consider this: Jimmy G had plenty of success against the Rams in the regular-season finale by getting rid of the ball in under 2.5 seconds on average, which mostly eliminated the threat of L.A.’s pass rush. Brady is a master of quick-release passes.

Matchup to watch: Donald vs. Jensen
This is the battle within the battle. Aaron Donald often lines up opposite the opposing team’s centre and if Jensen’s ankle limits his agility or power then Donald could find himself in the backfield even quicker than he usually does.

Either way, it’s going to be a dogfight between those two and any other big boys mixing it up in the trenches. Donald had one of his team's three sacks against Brady in Week 3.

Will Donald providing pressure up the middle combined with Von Miller’s speed on the outside end up being a perfect storm to thwart the defending champs? On paper, it’s a promising matchup when you factor in those injuries. Donald needs to maintain his composure – no punches or throat grabbing – and avoid 15-yard penalties or possible ejection after things got heated last week.

The offence will also need to hold up its end of the bargain, of course.

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