Hernández: Rams brace for Tom Brady moments after their wild card win over the Cardinals

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) passes around Los Angeles Rams defensive end Aaron Donald (99) during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 23, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
The Rams defeated Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2020 and 2021 regular seasons. (Jason Behnken / Associated Press)

There was humor.

“I’m not playing against him one-on-one,” Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford said.

There were nervous smiles.

“It’s tough, man,” linebacker Von Miller said.

Listening to the Rams speak about Tom Brady was like traveling back in time and hearing basketball players describe Michael Jordan.

Or soccer players talk about Diego Maradona.

Or hockey players discuss Wayne Gretzky.

What they said had a reverential feel to it.

Seven Super Bowl championships into the most decorated career in NFL history, Brady is now more than a quarterback.

“Tom Brady is the GOAT,” safety Eric Weddle said.

The playoffs are about to really start for the Rams.

Six days after demolishing the overmatched Arizona Cardinals in an NFC wild card game, the Rams will visit the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

A round after torturing a flustered Kyler Murray, Sean McVay’s team will try to stop the most decorated quarterback to ever play the game in Brady.

Defeating Brady will require more than the right game plan. The Rams will have to extinguish his aura, which they were already feeling on the other side of the country in the aftermath of their 34-11 thumping of the Cardinals.

Recent history points to the Rams having a real chance: They have beaten Brady in each of the two years he’s played with the Buccaneers.

They sacked him three times in a 34-24 victory at SoFi Stadium earlier this season. They intercepted two of his passes and limited him to 216 yards in a 27-24 win at Raymond James Stadium last season.

Both games were in the regular season, however.

Brady is a three-time league MVP, but his reputation was made in the postseason. That’s when he becomes football’s equivalent of a prime Tiger Woods in a red polo on the final day of a golf tournament. That’s when Clark Kent becomes Superman.

Brady won his fifth Super Bowl MVP last year when he passed for three touchdowns in a 31-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

He might be 44 now, but he’s still Tom Brady, of which he reminded the world over the weekend when he led the Buccaneers to a postseason-opening 31-15 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. The win was his NFL-record 35th in the playoffs.

“Man, we’re going to need all 11 guys, all hands on deck,” Miller said. “Tom sees the whole field and we all know about Tom in the playoffs. He’s incredible, man.”

McVay knows this firsthand.

Brady played a major role in the game that altered the trajectory of McVay’s career, the New England Patriots’ 13-3 win over the Rams three years ago in Super Bowl LIII.

With the score tied in the fourth quarter, 3-3, Brady completed short passes to Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Rex Burkhead before connecting on a 29-yard completion with Gronkowski that advanced the ball to the Rams’ 2-yard line. Sony Michel scored a touchdown on the next play.

“He’s an outstanding player who’s been doing it for a very long time,” Stafford said. “He’s going to get his team in the end zone, so I have to do my part as well.”

McVay was encouraged by how the Rams’ defense performed against the Cardinals. The Rams scored 21 points before the Cardinals gained a first down. They limited Murray to 28 passing yards in the first half. They intercepted two of Murray’s passes, returning one for a touchdown.

“I think it was one of the best performances in playoff history in the first [half], you know, being able to hold a really explosive offense like that, to be able to get a defensive touchdown, a couple of turnovers,” McVay said. “Just so pleased with those guys and got a great challenge going against Tom Brady next week.”

Weddle, who returned from a two-year retirement against the Cardinals, pointed to how he’s never beaten Brady. Playing for the Chargers and Baltimore Ravens, Weddle was 0-6 in the regular season against the Brady.

“I can’t say I’ve ever beat him, so let’s break that streak,” Weddle said.

About the only Rams player who didn’t sound in awe of Brady was defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

“It’s a new year,” Donald said. “Respect what he did in the past, but it’s a whole new year.”

Donald could be right. It could be a whole new year.

But it could also very well be more of the same.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.