NFL

Matthew Stafford leads Rams to Super Bowl, pays off trade

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — There were still 25 seconds left in Sunday’s NFC championship game when Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay left the sideline in search of his quarterback.

As soon as he spotted Matthew Stafford at the 35-yard line, McVay sprinted in his direction and wrapped him in an emotional hug, one year in the making.

Exactly 365 days before they eliminated their biggest nemesis and secured the chance to host Super Bowl LVI, the Rams made a seismic trade that was perceived as a gamble at the time. They sent two future first-round draft picks, a third-round selection and onetime franchise quarterback Jared Goff to Detroit in exchange for the talented but inconsistent Stafford.

One year later, during a heart-pounding 20-17 victory over the 49ers to reach the Super Bowl, Stafford showed why the Rams were right to give up that haul to get him. He completed 31 of 45 passes for 337 yards and made a series of big plays with the season on the line that Goff never could have.

Sometimes, Stafford wowed the Rams with his pinpoint passes. He capped a 97-yard, 18-play second-quarter march with a gem of a corner route to Cooper Kupp between two helpless defenders.

Other times, his resilience was his biggest attribute. He kept right on slinging the ball, even after Kupp and Ben Skowronek dropped potential second-quarter touchdown passes and the Rams fell behind by 10 points midway through the third quarter.

And once, Stafford caught a lucky break and capitalized. Given a reprieve after 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt had a gift-wrapped interception bounce off his chest and fingertips early in the fourth quarter, Stafford steadied himself and drove the Rams for game-tying and game-winning field goals.

In his postgame news conference, as jubilant Rams fans banged on the walls and pulsating rap music blared in the background, McVay was asked, “Is this why you went out and got Matthew Stafford?” 

The Rams coach stifled a laugh and said, “What do you think the answer to that question is?”

“We went out and got him because we thought it was a chance to get a great player,” McVay continued. “Those chances don’t come around often. What he’s done, he’s elevated everyone around him. He’s made me a better coach. He’s made his teammates better. He’s such a great person. If you don’t root for this guy, something’s wrong with you.”

A few minutes later, seated at the same podium that McVay had just occupied, Stafford reminisced about his “excitement” at learning the Rams had traded for him. He famously won over McVay last January while talking shop in Cabo San Lucas, where they both happened to be vacationing last January. In an instant, he went from a Detroit team that hadn’t won a playoff game in three decades to a Rams franchise that had pushed all their chips into the middle of the table to try to win the Super Bowl.

“This is a long time coming, you know?” Stafford said. “I’ve spent a lot of years in this league and I’ve loved every minute of it. But I sure am happy for this opportunity, not only for myself but for a lot of other guys in the locker room that deserve it too.”

The Rams traded for Matthew Stafford to help them win a Super Bowl. He’s very close to delivering. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

That Stafford’s crowning moment came at the expense of the 49ers made the victory all the more sweet. Not only had the Rams lost six straight games against their NFC West rivals, they had also squandered two chances to step on the 49ers’ necks already this season.

On a Monday night in mid-November, the 49ers entered a home game against the Rams at 3-5, teetering on the brink of a second straight lost season. That night, the 49ers ambushed the previously surging Rams, rediscovered their identity and gained the belief they had what it took to compete with the NFC’s best teams.

Eight weeks later, the 49ers traveled to SoFi Stadium needing to win to salvage a playoff spot. Energized by a roaring red-clad crowd, the 49ers rallied from a 17-0 deficit to save their season and ignite a playoff run.

When the Rams faced a 17-7 third quarter deficit on Sunday night, it seemed that they might regret not eliminating the 49ers when they had the chance. Their desperation even began to show when they burned all three second-half timeouts by the 10-minute mark of the fourth quarter, two on dubious McVay challenges that had little hope of reversing calls.

Despite relentless pressure from the 49ers’ formidable defensive line, Stafford and his receiving corps saved McVay from an offseason of second-guessing. Kupp caught both of Stafford’s touchdown passes, Odell Beckham Jr. furthered his redemptive arc with nine catches for 113 yards and backup tight end Kendall Blanton filled in admirably for an injured Tyler Higbee with five crucial receptions.

That group spearheaded a drive for a go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter, but the Rams stalled deep in 49ers territory. While Matt Gay’s field goal gave the Rams the lead with 1:46 to play, it also left Stafford pacing nervously in front of his team’s bench. 

“I wish we would’ve put seven up there,” Stafford said with a smile afterward. “I would have felt a whole lot better on the sideline.”

What happened next was another illustration of why the Rams traded for Stafford. With a spot in the Super Bowl at stake, Jimmy Garoppolo showed why he isn’t the longterm answer for San Francisco. His first pass was batted down. His second went for negative yardage. And his third landed in the arms of Travin Howard after Aaron Donald muscled through the 49ers’ offensive line and forced Garoppolo into desperation mode.

Finally, after Howard’s interception secured victory for the Rams, Stafford could exhale. At 33, he reveled in shedding the label of not being able to win a big game and piloting his new team to its second Super Bowl in four years.

When speaking to reporters, Stafford fielded a question about what it would be like to play the Super Bowl at home. His bluntly honest answer offered the clearest window into his mindset.

“As long as we’re playing in it, Stafford said, “I don’t give a s*** where it is.”


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