Stafford and Beckham get playoff justification in Rams Win

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Thirty minutes before the biggest game of Matthew Stafford’s NFL career, the Los Angeles Rams threw quarterback passes during warmups with his coach, Sean McVay, standing close by.

Soon after, the two patted each other and hugged; McVay then tapped him on the helmet as the team jogged to the sidelines for formal player introductions.

It’s been nearly a year since the partnership was formed between McVay and Stafford, then the frustrated face of the dying Detroit Lions, when both were eliminated in the postseason and vacationed in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. They joined forces in hopes of playing in meaningful games in January and beyond.

Monday marked a critical step toward that vision, as the Rams defeated the Arizona Cardinals 34-11 in the NFC’s wildcard round, the first playoff win of Stafford’s 13-year career.

Stafford completed 13 of 17 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions and advanced the Rams to this weekend’s divisional round, where the team will play with the #2-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

The Rams defense intercepted Kyler Murray twice on back-to-back drives in the second quarter, returning one for a touchdown that put Los Angeles ahead 21-0. Running backs Sony Michel and Cam Akers rushed for a combined 113 yards and McVay cleverly challenged two off-duty calls which were reversed and soon led to points.

Stafford’s play may not have won the Rams the game, but the late interceptions that were his calling card didn’t doom them either.

“I am very happy with him and look forward to playing clean in the postseason, trusting his teammates and playing as he is capable of,” said McVay. “If he just plays to himself, I trust that really good things will happen for this team.”

Shortly before checking into the resort last year, an agitated McVay sat in a video conference with reporters after his team’s loss to the Packers in the division round, complimenting Aaron Rodgers’ poise and performance. He didn’t speak kind words to his quarterback, Jared Goff, at the time, and didn’t say definitively that Goff would return for the 2021 season.

Although Goff led Los Angeles to a Super Bowl in 2018, he fell back, throwing 29 interceptions over the next two seasons.

Enter Stafford, who lost the only three postseason games he played in with the Detroit Lions, despite throwing for 45,109 career yards, the fifth of active passers to come in this season.

McVay convinced General Manager Les Snead to trade for Stafford in a blockbuster exchange with Goff and two future first-round draft picks, with the team going all in to build a championship-class roster ahead of the Super Bowl of this season, which the Rams will host.

Stafford’s early return on trade and the star acquisitions that followed – linebacker Von Miller and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. joined mid-season – were positive. The Rams won 12 games to claim the NFC West, and Stafford threw for 4,886 yards and 41 touchdowns. But his 17 interceptions tied for the league lead, often dooming his team against quality competition.

That was not the case Monday night.

In the first quarter, instead of Cooper Kupp, who was doubly together in the end zone, Stafford found Odell Beckham, Jr. in a single cover, who then made an acrobatic jumping catch for a 4-yard score.

He placed passes accurately for his receivers, who created separation and yards all night long after the Cardinals’ defensive backs caught. Beckham Jr., who is also dealing with his own postseason reckoning, caught the first playoff touchdown of his eight-year career and, for style points, a 40-yard pass to Cam Akers on a touchdown drive in the third quarter.

With such a definitive win under his and the Rams’ belts, Stafford may see more career-defining games in the coming weeks.

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