Did you think Matthew Stafford would lead the Rams to the NFC championship game with 42 seconds remaining?
Tampa Bay had rallied from a 27-3 second-half deficit in the NFC divisional playoff matchup Sunday in what looked like the most-ridiculous Tom Brady comeback to date. The Rams had the ball and a two-TD lead with 4:31 left in the fourth quarter, but that almost-comical Brady sequence unfolded so fast.
Rams three-and-out. Brady threw a 55-yard TD to Mike Evans. Rams fumble. Leonard Fournette scores a game-tying touchdown. The comparisons to that and Brady’s 28-3 comeback in Super Bowl 52 were starting and there were still 42 seconds on the clock.
This looked like another chapter in the “Man in the Arena” series, and with Brady these games were almost always foregone conclusions.
Give Stafford his due. He provided the plot twist. The former No. 1 pick who waited 13 years to win a playoff game did what Atlanta’s Matt Ryan couldn’t do with 57 seconds left. He won the game.
Stafford’s 44-yard pass to Cooper Kupp set up Matt Gay’s 30-yard field goal as time expired. The Rams beat the Buccaneers 30-27 advanced to the conference championship game against the NFC West rival San Francisco 49ers.
No way, right? That’s Stafford. He did not get rattled, even when the Brady business unfolded. Stafford finished 28 of 38 for 366 yards and two TDs, and he has completed 74.5% of his passes in two playoff victories. He has the NFC stage now, too.
Stafford and Brady were the only two quarterbacks with at least 4,000 yards and 40 TDs in 2021. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, who had tormented Stafford all those years in Detroit, also was eliminated. On a weekend where the two leading MVP candidates were eliminated from the NFC playoffs, Stafford delivered what could be the defining throw of the postseason.
That’s a throw that proved Sean McVay and the Rams right for the bold offseason move that sent former No. 1 pick Jared Goff to Detroit. Consider the two drives beforehand. Los Angeles had a three-and-out on three running plays to force Tampa Bay to use their timeouts, and Cam Akers’ fumble followed on the next series. After the Buccaneers tied the game, Stafford was sacked on the first play o fthe final drive.
The Rams could have gone to overtime from there, but anybody who watched Super Bowl 51 or the 2018 AFC championship game against Kansas City knows how that ends. Brady didn’t let Ryan or Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes touch the ball in overtime. This felt like the next one.
Especially with Stafford on the other side. Flash back to all of those almost-moments that happened in 12 years with Detroit. This felt like an extended cut of one of those games where Stafford did everything to put his team in position to win, only to watch late-game dumb luck pop up and take that away.
But McVay trusted Stafford in the clutch, and he hit Kupp on a 20-yard pass near the sideline before going right back to his star receiver on the next play.
It is the play that could define Stafford’s career. He read the slot blitz, delivered a perfect pass to Kupp over the safety help and managed to direct the offense to get the spike in before time expired. Stafford celebrated beating the clock. Brady could only watch this time.
That set up the game-winning field goal. It was an incredible way to knock off the defending Super Bowl champions and yet another twist in one of the best divisional playoff weekends of recent memory.
Not that the Rams will be heavy favorites in the NFC championship game. The 49ers swept the regular-season series, including an overtime thriller in Week 18. San Francisco is two years removed from its last Super Bowl run, and this is Stafford’s go at the NFC championship setting.
Stafford has Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr., a tandem that combined for 15 catches for 252 yards and a TD. The Rams have a star-studded roster that is good enough to win it all, and the quarterback is not a question mark right now. Can San Francisco say the same thing about Jimmy Garoppolo?
Better question: Do you think Stafford can lead the Rams to a Super Bowl?
He answered that question in 42 seconds Sunday.
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