Rams open playoffs with pressure on Matthew Stafford
By many measures, Matthew Stafford’s first regular season with the Rams was the best of his NFL career and the best by a quarterback in the team’s recent history.
But how his performance over the past four months will be remembered depends on what happens in the next weeks — or four quarters.
Stafford leads the Rams (12-5) against the Arizona Cardinals (11-6) in a wild-card round game at SoFi Stadium Monday night seeking his first playoff victory and a first step toward proving, once and for all, he was an upgrade from Jared Goff.
At 33, with 13 seasons and the 12th-most regular-season passing yards in pro football history under his belt, Stafford doesn’t think proving himself depends on winning this game or getting the Rams to Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium.
“Every time I step on the field, I’m proving myself, whether it’s a pre-season game, a regular-season game, practice, a playoff game,” Stafford said. “I want to go out there and play well. This is just another opportunity to do that.”
But he knows that next to coach Sean McVay, he’ll get the most credit or blame for what happens next.
“This is a team game,” Stafford said. “But at the same time, do I know that when the quarterback plays a good game, you got a better chance to win the game? Absolutely. So, I’m always trying to go out there and play as good of football as I possibly can to help our team win.”
Stafford’s career so far hardly proves he’s a regular-season wonder who can’t cut it in the playoffs.
He was 0-3 in playoff games with a Detroit Lions team that never surrounded him with the talent the Rams have. His touchdown passes gave the Lions leads in the first two playoff games, in a 45-28 loss at New Orleans after the 2011 season and a 24-20 loss to the Cowboys after the 2014 season. The Cowboys game is infamous for officials picking up a pass-interference flag on a third-down play in Dallas territory, costing the Lions a chance to take a two-score lead with less than nine minutes to play.
“His body of work speaks for itself, and I don’t think you can just confine it to, ‘Oh, he hasn’t won a playoff game,’” McVay said Friday. “I don’t want to get in trouble, but I think the Dallas game that he had when he was in Detroit, he probably won that. That was out of his control, wasn’t it?”
Stafford is only one of the Rams’ big-name players looking to validate their 2021 acquisitions. Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. didn’t win a playoff game with the Giants and Browns. Linebacker Von Miller was MVP of the Broncos’ Super Bowl victory after the 2015 season.
“The season starts right now,” said Beckham, who caught five touchdown passes from Stafford in eight Rams games. “That’s really all that matters, is being great in these moments. The regular season, I don’t want to say it doesn’t mean anything, but everything is about this weekend.”
Said Miller of being judged by the postseason: “I don’t think it’s just for Matthew Stafford. I think it’s for all of us. (The Rams) assembled a Super Bowl team and we just want to go out there and play and get it done.”
The season after Stafford was acquired in the trade for Goff, who helped the Rams to the Super Bowl after the 2018 season, had far more highs than lows.
It was Stafford’s first 12-win season and brought his first division title. He set or tied career highs for touchdown passes (41), completion percentage (67.2%), and had his second-best passer rating (102.9) and yards-per-pass (8.1). His passing yardage (4,886) was the highest in Rams history, and some other numbers were the Rams best in the two decades since Kurt Warner.
Without Stafford, Cooper Kupp wouldn’t have led the league’s receivers in catches (145), yards (1,947) and touchdowns (16).
“No way we win that division or win 12 games without him,” McVay said of Stafford.
But the only major statistic in which Stafford led the league was interceptions, with 17 (tied with Jaguars rookie Trevor Lawrence), including a league-worst four returned for touchdowns. Stafford threw eight interceptions and lost a fumble in the Rams’ five defeats. He threw seven in the last three games.
Only one quarterback has led the NFL in interceptions in a season his team won the Super Bowl, the Giants’ Eli Manning in 2007.
The Rams are 3-1/2-point favorites over Arizona as they begin their fourth playoffs in McVay’s five seasons as coach — for good reasons. If the Rams backed into the NFC West title after losing to the 49ers in the regular-season finale, the Cardinals limped into a wild-card spot by losing four of their last five games. The Cards’ offense fizzled in the red zone and quarterback Kyler Murray wasn’t as effective after top target DeAndre Hopkins got hurt.
Aaron Donald sacked Murray three times in the Rams’ 30-23 victory at Arizona in December.
“Aaron Donald wrecked the entire game,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said Wednesday in a conference call with Rams beat writers.
But Murray and receiver A.J. Green will be working against a Rams secondary that’s missing starting safeties Jordan Fuller (ankle) and Taylor Rapp (concussion), and had to bring Eric Weddle out of retirement to help out. The Cardinals are expected to have defensive end J.J. Watt back from injured reserve. And they’re 8-1 on the road.
The Cardinals’ best would give the Rams trouble.
If the Rams don’t give themselves trouble first.
It’s no secret that avoiding ill-timed turnovers would be pivotal. Stafford had one pass picked off in the Rams’ 37-20 loss to the Cardinals at SoFi Stadium in Week 4, none in the win Rams’ 30-23 win at Arizona in Week 14.
“I’m very pleased with him, and (I’m) looking forward to (Stafford) playing clean ball in the in the postseason, trusting his teammates, playing the way that he’s capable of,” McVay said. “If he just plays within himself, I trust really good things will happen for this team.”
If the fourth-seeded Rams beat fifth-seeded Arizona — in the NFL’s first-ever Monday-night playoff game — they would advance to face the second-seeded Buccaneers in Tampa Bay. The 49ers’ win over the Cowboys in Dallas on Sunday means sixth-seeded San Francisco will play the Packers in Green Bay.
Stafford was asked if he’ll judge his first season in L.A. by how far the Rams go in the playoffs.
“I’ll let you know at the end of the season,” Stafford said. “I think the biggest thing for me is just trying to take each day as it comes, each opportunity to go out here and play with this team as it comes, and try to play it as high (of a) level I possibly can.
“There’s no question that in the playoffs it’s win and continue, lose and go home. (I’m) not oblivious to that. But the biggest thing for me is to try to be the best version of myself for this team and let the chips fall where they may.”