This was the moment Matthew Stafford always wanted. This was the moment he’d always worked toward.
Final minute of an NFL playoff game, on the road, crowd going wild, momentum against you, some legend on the other side, heck, let’s make it Tom Brady no less, and everyone needs you to make a play, needs Stafford to go do something to win the game, a game that truly matters.
This was all Stafford had wanted in his career, to be in the mix. And maybe it was partially his fault that he never could get the Detroit Lions there. Or maybe it was just the Lions. Whatever it was, it was. That was then. This was his new team, this was the Los Angeles Rams, locked at 27-27 with Tampa Bay, 42 seconds left to do something.
Yeah, it sounds a bit ridiculous. Stafford, he of one career playoff victory (last week), against Brady, he of seven Super Bowl titles, in a final, furious shootout.
But throughout those dozen seasons in Detroit, Stafford had prepped for this, pushed toward this. He watched the extra film and studied the situations and did the extra offseason workouts even if he was staring at a six-win roster. He led 39 Detroit comeback victories, an amazing number since he won only 74 games.
Whatever and however, he knew he could do this on the big stage. He just never had.
So while he said afterward it would have been nice if the Rams hadn’t blown a 27-3 lead with four fumbles and a missed field goal, and it would have been relaxing and satisfying to just cruise to an NFC championship game matchup with San Francisco, truth be told, this is what he really wanted.
“I would have loved taking a knee up three scores,”Stafford said. “But it’s a whole lot more fun when you have to make a play to win a game and just steal somebody's soul.
“That's what it feels like sometimes,” he continued. “They are sitting there, thinking, ‘Man, we just had this great comeback.’ And you get to reach in there and take it from them. That’s a whole lot of fun.”
Stafford, 33, was having a whole lot of fun Sunday in Tampa, where he and the Rams would steal Brady and the Bucs’ soul, 30-27, on an improbable reversal of fortune almost no one saw coming.
“If you were going to write a book,” Rams linebacker Von Miller said. “This is how you write the book.”
The play that will be etched in lore came with 28 seconds left, the Rams set up on first-and-10 from their own 44-yard line. Cooper Kupp had just gotten out of bounds and stopped the clock, but rather than huddle or grab a breather, coach Sean McVay told Stafford to go fast in an effort to keep the Buccaneers' pass rushers from setting up.
It worked. Tampa’s defensive call got botched. Coach Bruce Arians said not everyone got the word that it was zero coverage and blitz on Stafford.
Stafford sensed something was off once he got the snap. Kupp was running what the Rams call a “love of the game” route, basically a deep decoy that is designed to take the top off the secondary by dragging one or two defensive backs deep and opening space underneath. It’s a selfless route, a player doing a 50-yard dash with almost no hope of the ball even being thrown to them.
“You’re just pulling people out for the other guys running routes,” Kupp said.
“That's the last guy I thought would have gotten that ball before the ball was snapped,” Stafford said.
Stafford noticed that it was single coverage though, and Kupp might be able to get behind the defense. Kupp was about the fourth option, but suddenly he was the best one.
So Stafford stood in the face of the rush an extra beat, read the angle Kupp was taking and lofted a long ball to the perfect spot. Kupp identified it, caught it in stride and wound up tackled on the Buccaneers' 12.
A furious run down the field, spike and then Matt Gay field goal, and that was that.
“Finding a way to win a football game is what it is all about,” Stafford smiled.
That’s years of training and a world of talent coming together in a moment of calm. That’s how a quarterback goes and wins a playoff game, and isn't just the quarterback of a playoff game his team won.
“Matthew Stafford was unbelievable,” McVay said. “Just his poise, his command, his demeanor, his decision-making … It’s why you go and get him.”
The Rams gave up two first-round draft picks, a third and Jared Goff, who led them to a Super Bowl three years ago, because McVay and others believed this was who Stafford was.
Others wondered if he was just a stat guy or someone who could thrive on bad teams with few expectations. L.A. saw it differently and pounced when Stafford finally asked the Lions to trade him.
“I always have a lot of confidence in Matthew,” McVay said. “That never wavered. It never wavered the confidence he had in himself, his teammates, his coaches.”
On the Rams' sideline, they’ll remember Stafford in the moments after Brady led the Bucs all the way back to 27-27. They’d seen this movie before and didn’t want to be the latest victims. But while a lot of people tried to talk confidently, Stafford (who admits his "heart was racing") actually looked ready.
“Man, he had a look in his eye,” McVay said.
“All the guys on the sideline were like, ‘Man, you were in a dark place,’” Stafford said with a laugh. “Sometimes you have to go to those places you know, to make plays happen.”
On Sunday, with Brady across the way, with the conference title game on the line, with everyone watching and everyone wondering, Matthew Stafford made the plays happen, made the win happen. This is what he always knew he could do. This is what the Rams thought he could do.
Now it's onto the NFC title game, to do what's next.