Rams’ final drive proves that Matthew Stafford is made for the big moment

In Matthew Stafford’s 12-year tenure with the Lions from 2009 through 2020, the narrative on the quarterback was that he had as much talent as anyone at his position in the league, but the results were left wanting. There was far more talk of Stafford’s 74-90-1 “record” in the regular season, and 0-3 postseason mark, than there was around the fact that Stafford was generally playing from behind in a personnel sense. The Lions were able to select Stafford with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft because the Matt Millen era had just ended, and the 2008 Detroit team didn’t win a single game.

It takes a while to get past that kind of trauma.

So Stafford, who had the fifth-most attempts (6,224), the sixth-most completions (3,898), the seventh-most passing yards (45,109), and the seventh-most touchdowns (282) from 2009 through 2020, was dinged more for his relative inefficiency — he tied with Drew Brees for the fifth-most interceptions in that time with 144, his passer rating of 89.9 ranked 27th, and his Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt of 6.32 ranked 24th.

When the Rams traded Jared Goff, two first-round picks, and a third-round pick to Detroit for Stafford before the 2021 season, head coach Sean McVay didn’t care about any of that — he saw a quarterback who could execute the ideal version of his passing game in ways that Goff never could.

“The way he’s able to see the field, you see [Aaron] Rodgers, [Patrick] Mahomes — [who] have done an outstanding job of being able to move and manipulate coverage and change their arm slots, and Matthew has done a lot of those same things,” McVay said of Stafford around the time the trade was consummated. “I think he’s got great wide-field vision, sees the field. He’s able to speed it up if he has issues. You’re watching a guy that if you watch the film, the game makes sense to him, and I really respect the lens that he sees it through.”

Stafford had his issues for a while in McVay’s offense — opponents were diving all over his quick reads for pick-sixes, and he didn’t always see things downfield as he needed to. But in Week 3, when the Rams beat the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers 34-24, Stafford completed 27 of 38 passes for 343 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 134.0. Stafford was particularly devastating against the blitz, completing seven of nine passes for 147 yards and a touchdown against five or more rushers, and on the season, Stafford nuked blitzing defenses for 85 completions on 118 passes for 1,031 yards, 530 air yards, 14 touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 138.1 against the blitz. Stafford’s Positive Play Rate of 59.5% against the blitz is the NFL’s best — Patrick Mahomes ranks second at 58.0%.

Still, in the divisional round rematch against the Bucs, and even when the Rams got out to a 27-3 lead… well, once the Bucs started their comeback, everyone assumed that the Tom Brady comeback was its usual inevitability, and that Stafford would fold in comparison as the sunshine soldier he was presumed to be.

But after Tampa Bay tied the game 27-27 on a nine-yard Leonard Fournette touchdown run with 42 seconds left, the script was already written — the game would go to overtime, Brady would rip the hearts out, and things would be as they always were.

Stafford had other ideas, and he expressed them in two perfect throws to Cooper Kupp. The first came with 35 seconds left in the game, and it was a 20-yard pass to Cooper Kupp.

Then, Stafford’s denouement — the 44-yard completion to Kupp against Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ Cover-0 all-out blitz.

That put the ball at the Tampa Bay 12-yard line, but the Rams also had to haul it to the line of scrimmage so that Stafford could clock the ball, and kicker Matt Gay could boot the 30-yard game-winner.

Which is exactly what happened.

There will be a lot of talk this offseason about the wisdom of that blitz, but whoever called Stafford a situational winner before is barbecuing crow for dinner. Stafford had less than a minute to counter the greatest quarterback and the greatest winner in NFL history, and on this day, he had everything it took to turn Brady’s tide back.