Matthew Stafford is one win from the Super Bowl and two victories from making a lot of us look foolish for saying the Rams overpaid mightily for him in a misguided belief that he was the missing piece in coach Sean McVay’s championship puzzle.
And yet the 33-year-old quarterback who shattered Vikings Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton’s NFL record for most games before notching a playoff victory — 186 to 174 — shrugs and calls Sunday’s NFC Championship game against the 49ers at SoFi Stadium just another week.
“It’s the first normal week we’ve had in a little bit with, obviously, playing the first playoff game on a Monday and the second one on a short week,” Stafford said. “So this one just feels like a normal week during the season.”
Sorry, Matthew. Gotta call baloney on that one.
This is one massively huge game that will help define how you are remembered. And, if you win, you’ll return to SoFi for Super Bowl LVI for an even bigger opportunity to put the final stamp on your lofty place in the history of NFL trades and Super Bowls.
Unless you hate the Rams, Stafford has to be the sentimental favorite among the four quarterbacks still playing. By a long shot.
The AFC Championship game in Kansas City features the Chiefs’ 26-year-old Patrick Mahomes and the Bengals’ 25-year-old Joe Burrow. Mahomes already has one ring and is trying to become the youngest quarterback in history to play in a third Super Bowl. Burrow, meanwhile, is trying to become the first No. 1 overall draft pick to reach the Super Bowl by the end of his second season.
In the NFC, San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo is the proverbial sore thumb. He isn’t elite. He’s not a franchise quarterback. His own team made a blockbuster trade to move up to the third pick of the 2021 draft to select Marshall, Minn., native Trey Lance as his successor. And yet even Garoppolo is shooting for his second trip to the Super Bowl in three years.
Then there is Stafford. The guy McVay targeted as his ticket to winning it all spent his first 12 seasons as a No. 1 overall pick who couldn’t get Detroit’s motor to turn over.
Stafford’s Lions went 74-90-1. They reached the playoffs three times and went 0-3 while being outscored by 41 points.
McVay, however, saw the talent. The gritty toughness. The big arm and quick release. The 38 game-winning drives, which counted for 51.5% of Stafford victories in Detroit.
McVay, Rams General Manager Les Snead and owner Stan Kroenke weren’t afraid to overpay, knowing that a Super Bowl victory at Kroenke’s new $5 billion stadium would make any price acceptable in the long run.
So the Rams traded a third-round pick in 2021, first-round picks the next two years and starting quarterback Jared Goff, himself a former No. 1 overall pick who’s six years younger than Stafford. Goff also had helped the Rams reach the playoffs three out of the last four years, and the Super Bowl once.
A huge gamble for the “all-in” Rams. But, so far, so good, even as the pressure continues to mount on No. 9.
“In terms of his confidence, in terms of his preparation, nothing’s changed,” Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp said. “He believes in himself, he believes in the player that he is and the people that we have on this team. That mind-set’s never really changed, and I think that’s a great quality to have as a quarterback. Through the highs and the lows, having a continual belief in yourself and the people around you. He embodies that.”
When the trade was made in March, it was noted that trading for a veteran quarterback wasn’t a great recipe for Super Bowl success. The last time it produced a Super Bowl champion was the 1996 season when Brett Favre and the Packers won. Before that, it was Steve Young with the 49ers in 1995, and Joe Theismann with Washington in 1983 and, well, that’s it.
Stafford, however, has been mostly steady and occasionally shaky. He posted a career-high 156.1 passer rating in his Rams prime-time debut, a 20-point win over the Bears. He had 20 touchdowns and four interceptions when the Rams were 7-1. He won 12 games and a division title for the first time in his career.
What he hasn’t done is beat or play well against the 49ers. He lost 31-10 at San Francisco in Week 10 and 27-24 in overtime at home in Week 18. Under consistent pressure, he threw two interceptions in each loss.
But now he’s won two playoff games. Last week, the 43rd game-winning drive of his career upset the reigning Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, bounced the G.O.A.T. Tom Brady out of the playoffs and moved Stafford within two monster wins of proving that he is indeed the priceless piece that McVay was missing.