Eric Weddle was just a fraction of a second early.
Tom Brady fired a pass out to Mike Evans on fourth down that would have given the Buccaneers a first down and spotted the ball inside the red zone, but the star wide receiver was unable to haul in the pass. However, just a split second after the missed completion, the Rams’ safety came in and landed a helment-to-helmet hit on Evans that drew a penalty.
As the official explained — in a lengthy call on the field that featured the use of “however” and “therefore” — because the hit came after the pass fell incomplete on fourth down, the penalty yardage was assessed from the spot where the Rams were slated to take over possession after the turnover on downs.
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Brady kept the Buccaneers moving with a 13-yard pass on the first play, but the Buccaneers were then forced to try and convert on a 4th-and-14 from the Rams’ 36 with 12:28 left in the game. The future Hall of Fame quarterback aired the ball out to Evans at the 5-yard line, but Evans couldn’t haul in the one-handed catch before he was hit by Weddle.
The NFL rulebook states that if a defender lowers their helmet to initiate contact, it is an automatic first down. But by the time Weddle made contact with Evans, the ball had already hit the ground. The rulebook reads that when a foul happens with the ball becoming dead at the same time, it is a dead ball foul.
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The Buccaneers had looked to be building up some momentum after having fallen behind in the game 27-3. Tampa Bay scored a touchdown with 12 seconds left in the third quarter, and immediately forced a three-and-out by the Rams in the divisional-round matchup.
Brady lost a fumble on the first play of the drive, but the Rams lost a fumble on their first play when Matthew Stafford wasn’t ready for the snap, and it rolled out into the backfield before being recovered by Tampa Bay. That gave Brady the chance to make it a one-score game, leading to his incompletion to Evans.
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Weddle has been out of the league for a while before he was signed by the Rams ahead of the start of the playoffs. He announced his retirement from the NFL in February 2020, and last appeared in a game for the Rams in 2019. Los Angeles found itself needing the former Pro Bowl wideout after losing safety Jordan Fuller to a season-ending injury before the start of the postseason.