The first-year partnership between Matthew Stafford and the Rams has certainly blossomed through 19 games – Sunday the quarterback made special plays, defeating Tom Brady and leading Los Angeles to the NFC Championship game via a 30-27 road win against the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But it’s not just the Rams and their fans who have enjoyed the show.
Football fans seek out Rams games knowing that Stafford can pull off scintillating moves that were less possible when he played for the ill-equipped Detroit Lions.
And so it played out on Sunday, as Stafford’s Ph.D-level work in every half this month led to a second playoff win for a 33-year-old QB whose 12-year Lions run netted just three postseason games, all defeats. .
“It was a lot of fun,” said Stafford, who was good for three touchdowns and had no interceptions.
It looked like the Rams would stifle a game they had led, 27-3.
Stafford led a last minute rescue and wrote the game’s signature play.
He beat a heavy Bucs blitz, delivered a perfect pass to Cooper Kupp – good for 44 yards – and jabbed the ball with four seconds left.
Matt Gay followed with a 30-yard field goal that will match the Rams and San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s NFC’s Super Bowl qualifier in Inglewood.
The difficulty of ‘inside football’ to Stafford’s last big game?
“Really,” said Kupp, “what he could do … was unbelievable.”
Bucs tackles Ndamakong Suh, a former Lions teammate, who shot through the middle after punching a Rams guard.
A cornerback shot clear from the front.
Stafford had to reckon with those two threats and anticipate where Kupp was going after the corner of the slot was flashed.
Usually on that design, Kupp only runs deep as a decoy to allow for faster passage elsewhere.
Stafford (28 for 38, 366 yards) passed all those high-speed tests; he located a quick-thrown float that caught Kupp after walking past safety Mike Edwards, who had lined up just 10 yards behind the lightning corner.
“I’m not sure how he knew where I would end up,” Kupp said. “Just a great move from Matthew who put the ball where it needed to be.”
There were other gems.
Take Stafford and Kupp’s 70-yard touchdown play in the first half, on the third and 20 no less. It brought LA’s lead to 17-3.
How could Kupp run freely across the field despite the Bucs lining up with two fuses in the famed “Tampa 2” defense?
Stafford’s eyes and his arm made it possible.
By looking to his deep left, Stafford checked a safety, NBC analyst Tony Dungy said.
Dungy is a former NFL safety and the Bucs coordinator who helped popularize that defense.
If Stafford looks deep, security tends to respect that threat, as he can perform deep attacks and quick resets from different angles.
The Lions gave Stafford a Hall of Fame recipient in Calvin Johnson, but failed him overall.
The Rams gave him Kupp, who is deadly at reading and attacking defenses. Stafford, in turn, has improved on Kupp with throws that Jared Goff, the former LA QB, was unable to make.
The result was a season in which Kupp was given a wide-open field more often than is usual for even great receivers and won the NFL’s receiving triple crown (yardage, touchdowns and receptions).
Stafford caught another tailwind through the March trade that brought him to Los Angeles.
Start with clever coaching from Sean McVay, who included Goff rebounding and taking LA to a Super Bowl.
Kupp said McVay — who has achieved two NFC title games in five years — facilitated the last-minute, blitz-beater by speeding up the pace of the previous game.
Kupp had gained 22 yards when McVay “got in my ear” about accelerating, Stafford said.
Kupp suggested that McVay’s tweak created a few precious moments that added to its success by making it harder for the Bucs to perfect their blitz.
Stafford got plenty of support elsewhere: Rams stars Aaron Donald and Von Miller led a sudden pass rush that left Brady and Co. held up without a TD until midway through the third quarter; Ram blockers provided reliable protection; The Rams special teams had a big game, despite Gay coming up short by 47 yards.
Still, Rams would have been label chokers, and rightly so, had they lost a game they would have led 20-3 at halftime and 27-3 after Stafford sneaked in midway through the third quarter.
Three Rams fumbles were lost (all forced). And a shotgun that whistled past Stafford and ended up at the Bucs.
It was 27-27 with 42 seconds left when Stafford responded by doing to Brady and Co., what Brady has done to dozens of opponents. He took the Rams far (63 yards) and fast.
Then he poked the ball – did Brady notice he was at the TB12? — and maniacally out a torrent of words he said that led teammates to say, “Man, you were in a dark place.”
It was fun, Stafford said, to “steal someone’s soul.”
Yeah, he’s not in Detroit anymore. He’s in LA where Rams teams have progressed to just one Super Bowl. Stafford will try to make two, at the expense of the 49ers franchise that has won its last six games against LA