The Los Angeles Rams have been the most aggressive franchise from a team-building perspective since the Sean McVay era began.
McVay and general manager Les Snead have been the masterminds behind the Rams' star-studded roster. The team isn’t afraid to package a bevy of draft picks to acquire proven players over college prospects that pose a gamble on whether or not they’ll eventually pan out.
They did that ahead of this season, packaging two first-round picks, a third-round pick and quarterback Jared Goff to bring quarterback Matthew Stafford in-house and presumably take the Rams to the promised land.
This is a move in which the Rams felt they were just minor steps away from becoming a Super Bowl-caliber team. They reached the Divisional Round last season but needed an extra piece or pieces to not just get to the playoffs, but the hope was they could get through the playoffs and hoist a Lombardi Trophy.
Specifically, that piece was Stafford.
Statistically, Stafford's first season in L.A. orchestrating McVay's offense has turned into his best single-season of his career. The team went 12-5 and won the NFC West.
But ultimately, the Rams have soaring goals that demand more than just being crowned division champions.
Stafford finished the regular-season third in passing yards (4,886) and second in touchdowns (41). But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. He also finished the NFL's first 18-week season tied atop the interception list (17).
The Rams' playoff success largely hinges on the right arm of Stafford. Certainly, he's already endured pressure since becoming the Rams' signal-caller. A franchise doesn't part ways with a package of draft picks without the stakes and expectations being raised upon what they can ultimately accomplish.
But the pressure that mounts from the regular-season in comparison to the playoffs is monumental higher. The offseason trade will fundamentally be judged on how successful Stafford and the Rams are during their playoff run.
“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 the biggest question entering the NFC Wild Card game is which version of Stafford will the Rams get when the Arizona Cardinals come into SoFi Stadium for their third meeting of the season?
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He's had flashes this season the illustrate his superior passing ability, throwing his name into the early-season MVP conversion. But Stafford's also had stretches of games this season like his last four weeks in which he committed nine turnovers throughout that stretch.
“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.”
Odell Beckham Jr., a key addition to the Rams offense during the mid-point of the season, indicated that these moments moving forward will be the defining point to the team's 2021 campaign.
“The season starts right now,” Beckham said. “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.”
All eyes will turn to the Rams on Monday night – the team that showed they were the aggressor last offseason with the hope that Stafford was the missing ingredient to their Super Bowl aspirations.
Stafford has played in three playoff games throughout his career with his latest appearance coming in 2017 when the Detroit Lions fell short to the Seattle Seahawks. Stafford is 0-3 in postseason play, throwing four touchdowns to three interceptions in his three-game sample size.
“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. “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 acknowledged the expectations ahead of his Rams' playoff debut, but stated that nothing changes for him. He's going to continue to stick to his identity and see how things unfold when he's true to himself.
“There’s no question that in the playoffs it’s win and continue, lose and go home. (I’m) not oblivious to that," Stafford said. "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.”
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