Matthew Stafford delivered the ultimate vindication over 79 Super Bowl yards

Odell Beckham Jr. was in street clothes, out with a knee injury. The Los Angeles Rams' running game was no better. The whole offense had stalled out, just 52 second-half yards stretched across five drives.

Cincinnati led on the scoreboard, the clock was dwindling and a Super Bowl the Rams were favored to win on their own home field was slipping away into a forever loss.

Matthew Stafford, his own ankle taped and throbbing after getting rolled up on during a sack, gathered the offense 79 yards from an end zone it had to reach.

This — the pressure, the moment, the challenge — is what Stafford coveted across his entire career.

When he played in Detroit, this is what drove him to show up at 6 a.m. at the team facility even in the December cold that was as dead as the Lions' season. This is what pushed him through offseason workouts, trying to prepare for a chance that seemed so far away.

This is what would cause him to come to Super Bowls through the years, soaking in the week-of excitement with his wife, only to leave before the game because the tease was somehow motivational. So close. So far.

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And this, the chance to go win a Super Bowl, was what caused him to go to Lions ownership a year ago and ask for a trade to a contender. The Lions were about to start their fourth coach and fourth rebuild since Stafford was the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft. The chance at greatness, the chance to test himself in the most pressurized of moments, was back to nowhere.

He believed he was a winner, even if he rarely won. He believed he could be a champion, even though he'd never won even a divisional crown. He wouldn’t give up. Hope. Time. Anything.

Matthew Stafford led the Rams on a Super Bowl-winning drive, paying off the potential of a dozen seasons in Detroit replete with frustration and coming up short. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)
Matthew Stafford led the Rams on a Super Bowl-winning drive, paying off the potential of a dozen seasons in Detroit replete with frustration and coming up short. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

He got furloughed to Los Angeles. Sunshine and innovation; Cooper Kupp, Sean McVay and Aaron Donald (who the Lions could have drafted but took Eric Ebron).

All the prep work now had a purpose. This was a team that could win it all.

Except now Matthew Stafford had to go win it all. After being so far from everything for his first dozen seasons, he was now just 79 yards.

What had happened in the past no longer mattered. Not the losing seasons. Not the injury to OBJ. Not the two interceptions in this game. Not the punt-punt-punt that preceded this.

Just before taking the field, McVay, the Rams head coach who had fought for the team to trade three draft picks (including two first-rounders) and quarterback Jared Goff to get Stafford, made everything clear.

“Hey, Matthew, you and Coop go get this done,” McVay said.

This is why he was here.

Stafford hit Brycen Hopkins to the right for 9 yards. He then watched Kupp rush for 9 on a critical fourth-and-1. He found Kupp for 8 and Hopkins for 6 and Cam Akers for 3 to inch into Cincinnati territory.

Then he heaved one to Kupp for 22 down the middle and the whole game flipped. The Bengals had been bludgeoning the Rams all second half. Now they were on their heels, backed up near their end zone, backed up to a winter of heartbreak.

The Rams pushed to the 16-yard line, then the 8, then the 4, then the 1. First-and-goal. First-and-everything.

And then there was Kupp again, in the corner, one-on-one, and Stafford threw the ball with all the precision and all the strength and all the touch that his enormous talent allowed.

Touchdown. Rams 23, Bengals 20. Super Bowl for L.A.

“Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp came to life,” McVay said. “They showed why they were such great players in the biggest moments. Play in, play out … Our best players shined the brightest when they had to.”

For Stafford, a dozen years of anonymity and frustration was gone. He was no longer just a fantasy football star, he was a real one. He was no longer a guy who led comebacks on 1 p.m. regional broadcasts, but in the white-hot spotlight of a Super Bowl.

The Rams needed a quarterback. This quarterback needed these Rams. One year, one chance. Everything.

The lost games and lost seasons were no longer for nothing, they were what slowly got him here. If you want to know what kind of player Stafford is, what kind of pro he is, what kind of respect he commands, it came in the form of an outpouring of support not just from his former teammates and coaches in Detroit, but the actual Lions fans themselves.

T-shirts emblazoned with the “Detroit Rams” across the front were flying off store racks. Super Bowl parties had a rooting interest. The very fans Stafford bailed on were in his corner, cheering him on. How often does a player engender that?

“It was amazing,” Stafford said on NFL Network. “There is no reason for them to cheer for me anymore, the fact they did was just a true testament to who they are as people, who they are as fans.”

Those who had worked with him, had watched him, had suffered with him always believed that this was possible. Just give him a chance. A bumbling franchise in Detroit couldn’t. It had a Super Bowl-winning caliber quarterback and didn’t win a playoff game.

It should have been enough to make Stafford doubt himself, to get dragged down, to simply quit. Instead he bet on himself. He couldn’t let his career go without knowing.

Was he really built for this?

Seventy-nine yards later, he had a Lombardi Trophy to prove that he was.