Matthew Stafford has finally won a playoff game.
The 13-year veteran quarterback is in the top 10 all-time in almost every NFL statistical category. But the fact that he had never won a postseason game has hung over his career like an impenetrable cloud.
Stafford faced the pressure of that fact all week, but exorcised his postseason demons with a dominant 34-11 victory by the Los Angeles Rams over the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Wild Card Game at SoFi Stadium.
"I'm just excited for our team to get the win," said Stafford when asked about getting the proverbial monkey off his back with his first career playoff victory. "I think it means a lot more to you guys [the media] and all that. I just want to be a part of this team and help us win. I trust in myself, trust in my abilities, trust in my teammates. I'll go out there and play and let the chips fall where they may."
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Early this week, Rams' head coach Sean McVay was asked about Stafford's postseason failures. He defended his quarterback, telling reporters that this was the reason that the franchise traded former first round overall pick Jared Goff to Detroit to acquire Stafford almost a year ago. He even pointed to some officiating decisions in 2014 that may have played a role in Stafford previously going winless in the postseason.
"I thought he did a great job leading the way. He's still the same great player to me, and he always was before this game as well," said McVay after the win about his quarterback. "I think it's good so you guys [the media] don't have to talk about that anymore so he can get that one out of the way. But really proud of him. Just so lucky to be able to do this with him. He's our leader. We wouldn't be here without him."
Stafford himself knew that the Rams playoff hopes resided in his humble hands. That the NFC West Division Champions would only go as far as their quarterback could take them.
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He delivered for them on Monday night.
In front of a capacity crowd off 70,625, Stafford carried the Rams offense throwing for 202 yards, two touchdowns, and a rushing touchdown. More importantly, he had zero turnovers for just the seventh time this season.
"I felt like I was putting the ball in the right place for the majority of the night," said Stafford on his performance. "I had to throw one away towards (WR) Coop(er) (Kupp) one time. But other than that, I felt like the ball was going to the right place in a pretty good spot. Our guys made great plays. That's how I expect to go out and play every game. It doesn't always happen that way. But just felt good out there, felt comfortable and our team played great."
Odell Beckham Jr. caught the first playoff touchdown of his career, capping off a 10-play, 52-yard opening drive that gave the Rams an early 7-0 lead. In his first postseason action since 2016, Beckham Jr. finished with four catches for 54 yards, and even threw for 40 yards.
"That’s a play we practiced this week. (WR) Odell (Beckham Jr.) is a super talented guy. He made that throw right-handed, he could probably do it lefty, too," said Stafford off Beckham's throw to Akers. "He's a freak. But just really well executed. (RB) Cam (Akers) did a great job walking underneath it, made a play."
After a quarterback keeper gave the Rams a two-touchdown lead, the defense provided a 21-0 halftime lead when David Long Jr. intercepted an errant throw by Kyler Murray as he was being sacked in his own end zone and walked in for the easy pick-six.
"That was a huge momentum builder," said Rams' safety Eric Weddle, who came out of retirement on Tuesday and played in the game, including on that play. "The game was still in the balance at that time. We got pressure right there, and I thought Kyler was going to throw it but he ran to his right and then tossed it and D-Long [David Long Jr.] intercepted and it scored and I was right there. I saw the whole thing in slow motion."
The defense, led by All-Pro's Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Jalen Ramsey intercepted Murray twice, sacked him twice, and held him to his lowest QB rating of the season at 40.9.
"We was dominant out there. The quarterback [Kyler Murray] wasn't confident at all," said Donald of the defense's performance. "Once guys were getting close to him and we kept him the pocket he made a couple bad throws or slid down. We did a good job of bottling him up."
The Rams advance to the NFC Playoff semifinal against the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by future Hall of Fame quarterback and seven-time Super Bowl Champion Tom Brady.
"He's the G.O.A.T. I've had many battles with him over my career, and I've never beaten him, so let's hope we can beat that streak," said Weddle of Sunday's matchup in Tampa Bay. "They're the defending champs for a reason...it's going to be a huge challenge for us and we're up for the challenge."
NFL receiving triple crown winner Cooper Kupp caught a touchdown pass in the second half.
James Conner capped off the Cardinals first scoring drive of the game when he bulldozed into the end zone for the two-yard score. Arizona converted the two-point conversion to cut the deficit to 20-points.
The Rams would cruise from them, dwindling down the clock on two long drives that ended in field goals.
The Cardinals and Kyler Murray will now look to next season after their first taste of the playoffs.
"I'm disappointed," said Murray after the loss. "Obviously just losing, I haven't really thought about the future or anything like that. Trying to soak all this in. There's a lot of emotions. Proud of the team, proud of the way we fought. Like I said, it was definitely a lot of disappointment, failure throughout the season and to end the season. But there's definitely a lot to build on as well. Like I said, I'm proud of the guys. It's just unfortunate. We didn't play our best tonight."
After winning his first career playoff game, Stafford and the Rams will look to make it two in a row against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers on Sunday.