The St. Louis Rams (5-8) — who are in the midst of a highly disappointing season — are set to host the upstart Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) in a Thursday Night Football matchup that could ultimately prove to be the Rams’ last home game at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri. With that being the case, when this game kicks off, you can fully expect to see a fired-up group of players on the St. Louis sideline, along with a wild environment in the Dome. The excitement may change to bitter disappointment by the end of the game, but there is no doubt in our minds that the Rams’ home-field advantage will be a factor tonight.
The Buccaneers, on the other hand, are one of the biggest surprises in the league this year. Their revival comes in large part due to the play of rookie quarterback Jameis Winston — who is a bona fide NFL Rookie of the Year candidate and looks like the franchise quarterback Tampa Bay has been desperately searching for during the last decade — and a running game, led by Doug Martin, that ranks fourth in the league in total rushing yards per game.
On paper, this game may look like a snoozer. However, when you consider that the Buccaneers are fighting to keep their slim playoff hopes alive and that this may be the Rams’ final home game in St. Louis, you have the makings of an entertaining Thursday Night matchup. With that said, here is a look at three key matchups that will play a major role in the outcome of this game.
1. St. Louis running back Todd Gurley vs. Tampa Bay’s defensive front seven
As you know, we previously mentioned that Winston was a Rookie of the Year candidate. His top competition for the award is Gurley, who is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and ranks fourth in the league in total rushing yards, despite missing the first two games of the season. In fact, outside of Minnesota Vikings All-Pro Adrian Peterson, Gurley may be the best running back in the entire league. If Tampa Bay lets the rookie out of Georgia run wild, they will have an extremely difficult time escaping St. Louis with a win.
2. Tampa Bay offensive line vs. St. Louis defensive line
This matchup may ultimately decide the outcome of this game. You would never guess this if you looked at their overall record, but the Rams have one of the best defensive lines in the National Football League. St. Louis will miss All-Pro defensive end Robert Quinn, who is out for the season with a back injury, but they do have the best defensive tackle in the game, in Aaron Donald (pictured above), as well as two solid defensive ends in Chris Long and William Hayes. If the Tampa Bay offensive line can keep Donald, Long, and Hayes in check (for the most part), the Bucs will likely win this game. If they struggle to move the Rams off the ball and keep them out of Winston’s face, then we will likely see the Rams come out of this game victorious.
3. Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston vs. St. Louis quarterback Case Keenum
Heading into tonight, Winston gives the Buccaneers a clear-cut advantage at the quarterback position, but at the same time, he is still a rookie and this will be his first time experiencing the shortened week of preparation time that comes with playing a Thursday night game. Keenum, meanwhile, is a veteran journeyman, who is claiming the short practice week is actually a good thing for him. Outside of the battles up front, this matchup will likely carry the most weight in determining the outcome of this game.
Final prediction: Buccaneers 23, Rams 20
Winston, and a rash of forced turnovers by the Tampa Bay defense, will carry the Bucs to a hard-fought road win over the Rams.