When the Rams pushed their chips in the middle of the table last offseason to acquire quarterback Matthew Stafford from the Lions in exchange for a package of draft picks, the expectation for L.A.'s new passer was that he would be able to stack playoff wins and perhaps lead them to a Super Bowl.
Stafford had similar aspirations, publically saying he wanted to be part of big games with the opportunity to deliver when the stakes are at its highest point.
And so far, Stafford has done just that, capping off two consecutive victories in which the Rams have punched their ticket to the NFC West Championship where they'll host the 49ers for their third meeting of the season.
Sunday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium, the Rams pulled off a 30-27 thriller that went down to the final play of regulation to send the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers out of postseason play.
"What an amazing sign of resilience, team picking each other up," Rams coach Sean McVay said after the game. "A lot of things didn't go our way in the second half, but guys kept battling and found a way. There's no style points in the playoffs. You either go home or you advance and I'm so proud of this group for them to come out to a lead and do what they did. I thought the defense did a great job on a lot of the sudden change situations.
"But my favorite part is guys just stayed together, right? Nobody flinched, nobody blinked. "
The Rams got off to a commanding lead, holding a 27-3 edge over the Bucs with four minutes left in the third quarter.
But just when the Rams began closing in to put the game on ice, they couldn’t get out of their own way, committing another fumble – marking their fourth of the game – which opened the door for the seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady to ignite the Tampa Bay offense.
After the Bucs rallied back to tie the game up at 27-27 with under one minute left, Stafford hit wide receiver Cooper Kupp for a 20 and 40-yard gain to set up the game-winning field goal in which Matt Gay converted from 30 yards out.
"If we find a way to get into field goal range, (I) feel all the confidence in the world in Matt Gay, Matthew and the rest of the offensive guys did an outstanding job putting our kicking unit in position and 30-27," McVay said with a grin.
Gay, the Rams Pro Bowl kicker, entered the game having made 34 of his 36 field goal attempts this season. But after a rare missed attempt fell short in the second half, McVay said he was thrilled that Gay received a crack at redemption with the game on the line to rebound.
“I’m so glad he got the opportunity to come back from an uncharacteristic miss," McVay said.
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Similar to last week's efforts, Stafford played another game of turnover-free football, throwing two touchdowns for 366 yards, while also running in a quarterback sneak from the goal-line.
Stafford was sacked twice against the Bucs' defensive front, who notoriously blitzed more than any other team in the NFL this season. The Rams' pass blocking held up against the likes of Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea for most of the night despite operating without their All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth, as he nurses an ankle injury.
In place of Whitworth was Joe Noteboom – the team's swing tackle, who registered a 96% pass block win rate, according to Next Gen Stats.
Prior to Stafford's back-to-back playoff wins across the last two weeks, he was highly regarded as a high-end quarterback but was surrounded by the idea that he couldn’t win on the big stage of the playoffs. He had gone 0 for 3 in the playoffs during his 12-year stint with the Detroit Lions prior to joining the Rams.
That narrative has been put to rest, as Stafford now has two monumental victories in his back pocket. Stafford has completed 75% of his throws for 568 yards, four passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in his two playoff games with the Rams.
In moving ahead to Stafford's next test, the 49ers have beaten him and the Rams twice this season, including the regular-season finale in which San Francisco fought back after being down three scores to force overtime and hand the Rams a loss entering the postseason.
“Hopefully it’s one of those games where we come out and it’s heavy blue and yellow and we have a nice loud crowd that makes it tough on them," Stafford said about the 49ers coming to SoFi Stadium. "I’m excited about the opportunity.”
When the 49ers came to SoFi Stadium two weeks ago, it was predominantly a crowd of red and white. The Rams were tasked with going to the silent count on offense despite being at home due to the overwhelming amount of 49ers fans.
We'll see if the NFC Championship being at stake does anything to change the turnout of 49ers fans packing the Rams' new state-of-the-art venue with the winner advancing to Super Bowl LVI.
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