The first rivalries of note for the Buccaneers, who started play in 1976 and joined the old NFC Central in 1977, were probably the Bears and Packers, though that former one was pretty one-sided throughout the ‘80s. In the ‘90s, the Brett Favre-led Packers became the hurdle the Buccaneers felt they had to clear in order to fulfill their championship dreams, with that mantle transferring to the Eagles in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. And even though they weren’t yet division mates, the Bucs had their share of heated matchups with the Falcons and Saints during the ‘80s and ‘90s, helped by geographical proximity.
It wasn’t particularly surprising to see any of these rivalries develop. There was one, however, that seemed to come out of nowhere: Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. St. Louis Rams.
The Rams were one of the NFL’s worst teams throughout the ‘90s, which they split between Los Angeles and Missouri. They didn’t win more than seven games in any year from 1990-98. They were also part of the NFC West, and they played only three games against Tampa Bay in that span. The Bucs weren’t much better during the first half of the decade. And yet, by the 2000 season, a St. Louis-Tampa Bay matchup became a nearly automatic addition to the Monday Night Football Lineup. How did that happen?
It started in 1999, when Trent Green went down with a season-ending injury in the preseason and the unknown Kurt Warner took over for a Dick Vermeil team coming off a 4-12 campaign. No, that doesn’t sound like the formula for a Super Bowl run, but Warner was magnificent, pulling the likes of Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt into a nearly unstoppable offense. At the same time, the Buccaneers’ defense, led by Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch, was emerging as the best in the NFL. Those two forces were on a collision course that culminated in the thrilling 1999 NFC Championship Game. The Bucs’ defense almost completely shut down “The Greatest Show on Turf” in New Orleans and had a 6-5 lead late in the fourth quarter before Warner found Ricky Proehl for the touchdown pass that pulled out an 11-6 Rams win, sending them to the Super Bowl.
As it turned out, the two teams were scheduled to play again the following season, and it happened to fall in Week 16. The NFL threw the rematch into prime time and was rewarded with an incredible game in Tampa on December 18, 2000. In fact, many still consider that 38-35 Buccaneer victory the greatest regular-season game in franchise history.
That game, described in our own Buccaneers.com writeup 12 years ago as “relentlessly thrilling,” included 446 yards of offense from Warrick Dunn, Shaun King, Keyshawn Johnson and the rest. There were six lead changes, including a 72-yard touchdown catch by Holt that put the Rams up, 35-31, with less than five minutes to play. The Bucs countered with an 80-yard touchdown drive that needed one of the most memorable moments of improvisational magic in franchise history. Then-Ram Kevin Carter, later a Buccaneer, seemed to have Dunn trapped well in the backfield before Dunn managed to pitch the ball back to King, who ran around right end for a critical first down. Dunn finished the drive with a one-yard touchdown dive on a stretch play to the left.
The Bucs and Rams both ended up in the playoffs that year, and they also ended up on Monday Night Football again the next season in St. Louis. That game was another thriller, with another Dunn touchdown deciding it in the fourth quarter in a 24-17 decision. Just like the game a year earlier, this one was sealed by a John Lynch interception. Here’s our writeup from 2001.
Sure enough, the two teams were chosen for Monday Night Football again the next season, after the Rams had been to another Super Bowl. This time the matchup was early in the season, in Week Three, and thus it wasn’t yet obvious that the Buccaneers were on the way to their own Super Bowl title. The final score in this one wasn’t quite as close, as the Bucs prevailed 26-14, but the game was in doubt right up to a Derrick Brooks’ pick-six in the fourth quarter.
The Bucs and Rams have met three times since that incredible four-year run of spotlight games, but none with such dramatic backdrops. Still, as the two teams prepare to meet again in Week 16 of the 2012 season, it’s hard not to think back a dozen years to a time when a Tampa Bay-St. Louis matchup, against all odds, was one of the most anticipated in the league.