For the Rams, the Buccaneers are just another team to beat

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Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey (20) stops Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones (27) on a run during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 23, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey tackles Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones during Los Angeles' win in Tampa last November. (Jason Behnken / Associated Press)

They are defending Super Bowl champions, and among the favorites to play again in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium in February.

Their quarterback, if he ever retires, is bound for the Hall of Fame.

Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 2-0 and looking like a team that could become the first to win back-to-back NFL championships since the ageless Brady led the New England Patriots to titles in the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

But don’t suggest to the unbeaten Rams that Sunday’s showdown is a measuring-stick game for a team with designs on following the Buccaneers as the second to win a Super Bowl in its home stadium.

Coach Sean McVay, his players and staff insisted this week that every game qualifies as an evaluation opportunity regardless of the opponent.

“Is Tampa playing as good of football as anybody right now? Absolutely,” Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “Are they a really talented team, Super Bowl champs, all those things? Absolutely.

“So, it'll be a big test for us. But every time we go out there, whether it's a Wednesday practice or Sunday, it's a measuring stick for us when we’ve got to go out there and prove it every time.”

Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris dismissed the notion that the showdown could be regarded as a barometer game.

“There’s never a barometer game during the regular season,” Morris said. “There’s never a game that you want to say is, ‘All chips are in. This is the game. This is the game that is going to define us.’...

“Everything goes down to the end, everything. The only signature game that you can possibly have is sometime in February. … Usually, confetti falls around your feet or it doesn't.”

Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians acknowledged that much can be learned from a game against a defending champion.

“I think so,” he said. “It’s obviously a marquee game this week. … Each and every game is a learning curve, measuring stick, whatever you want to call it.

“I don’t think the outcome will determine who goes to the Super Bowl or the playoffs, But each and every game is a learning experience.”

Brady joined the Buccaneers last season after playing 21 seasons and winning six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, NFL teams conducted offseason programs virtually. So it took Brady awhile to fully adapt to new teammates and a new system, Arians said.

“He really didn’t even know the plays until halfway through the season,” Arians said.

Last November, the Rams traveled to Tampa to play the Buccaneers in a “Monday Night Football” matchup. Rams safety Jordan Fuller intercepted two passes by Brady, and former quarterback Jared Goff engineered a game-winning drive for a field goal to give the Rams a 27-24 victory.

“We were still in the crawling stages,” Arians said of his team’s development at that time.

Much has changed since the Rams defeated the Buccaneers.

The Buccaneers lost their next game to the Kansas City Chiefs — but they have not lost since.

The Buccaneers returned from an open date and won their last four games. They won three playoff games before defeating the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. They started this season with a narrow victory over the Dallas Cowboys and a rout of the Atlanta Falcons.

“I would say we’re light years from that game to this game as far as the quarterback and all the rest of the guys on offense,” Arians said.

Brady has passed for nine touchdowns, with two interceptions, with an offense that is scoring a league-best 39.5 points per game.

“You can make the case that he's doing some things as at high a level as he's ever done,” McVay said.

Brady will face a Rams defense led by lineman Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Last season, Donald had no sacks, tackles or hits on Brady in the Rams’ victory.

“There's going to be opportunities to where he’s going to have to hold the ball,” Donald said. “And we’ve got to take advantage of that and that's getting sacks or getting hits on him.”

Unlike Brady, Stafford had the benefit of actual workouts during the spring to acclimate to new teammates and McVay’s offense.

He got off to a fast start, passing for three touchdowns — two that covered more than 56 yards — in a season-opening victory over the Chicago Bears. Last Sunday, Stafford passed for two touchdowns and led a trademark drive for a field goal that gave the Rams a 27-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts at Indianapolis.

“He can make every single throw on the field — and with ease,” Arians said, adding, “He can stretch you all kind of ways horizontally and vertically.”

Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, the matchup between the Rams and Buccaneers could serve as a preview of a possible NFC playoff game.

That makes it meaningful, by any measure.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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