The quarterback who still has something to prove showed that maybe he really is built to win big games.
The head coach who still does too, showed that maybe he’s not.
The Los Angeles Rams and QB Matthew Stafford defeated the Arizona Cardinals, coached by Kliff Kingsbury, on Monday night, 30-23. While this was still a regular season game in December, it might signal plenty about the January playoff ones to come.
Stafford did everything to win it. Kingsbury did enough to not.
Start with Stafford, who is closing in on 50,000 career passing yards, 320 career touchdowns and $250,000,000 in career salary.
There has never been any doubt about his ability to throw a football, a primary reason he was the No. 1 quarterback recruit coming out of high school and the No. 1 overall draft pick coming out of college.
Winning critical games? That’s a different question. In a dozen seasons in Detroit, Stafford never won a playoff game (0-3 in the wild-card round) or a division crown. Even significant regular season victories are tough to find on his resume.
The Rams went all in on him last offseason though, making a deal that included QB Jared Goff and two first-round draft picks on the belief that Stafford was a winner dragged down by Lions dysfunction.
The Rams are now 9-4, but it wasn’t really until Monday, on the road, with an injury and COVID-depleted roster, that Stafford looked like someone capable of leading L.A. to the Super Bowl.
He threw for 287 yards and three touchdowns, including multiple completions featuring near impossible accuracy. He threw sidearm, downfield and seemingly through needles. He was brilliant.
“I thought Matthew Stafford was outstanding,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “I thought he made great decisions, some unbelievable big shots he took advantage of, he was great on third down.”
This was exactly the Stafford the Rams were hoping to see. His connection with Cooper Kupp (13 catches for 123 yards) belies the fact that they are in their first season as teammates. His ability to make huge plays out of busted ones changed the game.
“I thought we were efficient in the passing game, taking what they gave us and then we took some shots and hit those shots,” said Stafford, who hit Odell Beckham Jr. for 40 yards, Kupp for 44 and Van Jefferson Jr. for 58.
Then there were the little things, the winning things. Maybe none was bigger than chasing down his own fumble after being strip sacked. Just about everyone else on the field thought it was just an incomplete pass. It wasn’t. The ball was live. Stafford recovered and two snaps later threw a touchdown that pushed the lead to 27-13.
“I was screaming as I was running [for it],” Stafford said. “I [thought] it was an incomplete pass, but I didn’t want to leave it to chance.”
Those were the moments that Arizona lacked. It doesn’t all fall on the coach, but while Kingsbury has done excellent work to get the Cardinals to 10-3, no one has any idea if the third-year coach is built for the playoffs, where every decision gets magnified.
Among the questionable ones was a fourth-and-1 from the Rams’ 37-yard line with 5:24 remaining in the game and Arizona trailing by 10. Kick the field goal — Matt Prater was bombing them in — and it’s a one-score game with plenty of time left. The Cardinals were always going to need a field goal.
Instead they went for it, got stuffed and handed L.A. a huge advantage. Even though the Rams were forced to punt, they still had a two-score lead.
“I like the call, it just didn’t work out,” Kingsbury said. “You’ve got to give them credit. I’d go for it 100 times out of 100.”
When the Cardinals got the ball back with 2:44 remaining, they ran an 11-play drive until fourth down forced them to attempt a 49-yard field goal with 41 seconds remaining. Prater hit it, cutting the lead to 30-23, but there was almost no time left. They had numerous options to kick sooner and preserve the clock.
Instead, after the Cards recovered the onside kick, they were forced into a hurried, sloppy drive that featured two offensive penalties and some final-play confusion over whether Kyler Murray was supposed to spike it or attempt a Hail Mary. Instead, with an offensive line not blocking, Aaron Donald ended the game with a sack.
“It was miscommunication between me and the o-line,” Murray said. “They thought it was going to be ‘spike.’ But that’s heat of the moment stuff. I don’t even recall what was being said in the helmet.”
That’s the kind of stuff that needs to be sewn up. It was just part of the problem.
“A lot of penalties, the two turnovers, conversions on fourth down,” Murray said. “If we do a lot of things differently, it would have ended differently.”
Except they didn’t. So it didn’t. Arizona is still first in the NFC West, although it has given up the No. 1 seed. Kingsbury could only shrug. Considering his team is just 3-3 at home and 7-0 on the road this season, however, he joked that maybe they’re better off as a lower seed.
Kingsbury has just one year on his contract remaining and his name got floated (probably not coincidentally) for an open job at the University of Oklahoma, even though the Sooners never considered him.
This has been a breakthrough season, and Arizona would be wise to keep him around. But the spotlight of January is coming, and any backfiring decision can end a season and wreck a reputation.
It’s the big games, the playoff games, after all, where respect is truly handed out.
Just ask Matthew Stafford. He’s still looking for his.