Hernández: He's a winner: Matthew Stafford redefines his legacy by leading Rams to Super Bowl

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) talks with Terry Bradshaw after defeating the San Francisco 49ers
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford talks with Fox broadcaster Terry Bradshaw following the NFC championship game Sunday at SoFi Stadium. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The view was different from up there.

On a makeshift stage in the middle of the field at SoFi Stadium on Sunday, Matthew Stafford looked out at a world that would never see him the same again.

Thirteen years into his career, he was finally a winner.

A year to the day of his trade to the Rams, Stafford advanced his team to the Super Bowl.

“I don’t know that I ever thought about what I would be feeling at this moment,” Stafford said. “I probably just sat there and just wished I could be in those games.”

When the NFC championship game was over, when the Rams closed out their 20-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, Stafford’s wife ran onto the field and leaped into the quarterback’s arms.

“She’s fired up,” Stafford said.

They weren’t in Detroit anymore.

Stafford didn’t win a single playoff game in his 12 seasons with the Lions but has now won three in the last three weeks.

A week after setting up Matt Gay’s winning field goal in Tampa Bay with a 44-yard pass to Cooper Kupp, Stafford completed five passes to lead the Rams down the field and position Gay to convert his latest tiebreaking kick.

“We talk about competitive greatness all the time, being your best when the best was required,” coach Sean McVay said. “He embodied competitive greatness today.”

In exchange for the opportunity to redefine his career, the former reputed loser delivered the Rams the most important victory in franchise history by passing for 337 yards and connecting with Kupp for two touchdowns.

The significance of the game was visible in the red that painted the stands at SoFi Stadium, particularly behind the end zones and in the upper decks. There appeared to be more 49ers fans than there were Rams fans Sunday, the remnants of the NFL’s decision to vacate this market for more than two decades.

The gradual process of winning over Los Angeles starts with wins like this, as the Rams are certain to benefit from the two-week buildup to the Super Bowl that will be staged in the city.

The prospect of playing in a Super Bowl they were hosting was what prompted the trade for Stafford in the first place.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford passes the ball during their 20-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford passed for 337 yards and two touchdowns Sunday against the 49ers. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

“We went out and got him because we thought it was a chance to be able to get a great player of his magnitude,” McVay said. “Those things don’t come around often.”

In addition to swapping quarterbacks, the Rams sent the Lions two future first-round draft picks.

Stafford provided the Rams with the quarterback upgrade they envisioned, making throws predecessor Jared Goff couldn’t make and winning games Goff couldn’t win.

“He’s elevated everyone around him,” McVay said. “He’s made me a better coach. He’s made his teammates better.”

But questions remained.

Stafford had no choice but to take risks when he was with the talent-deprived Lions. Their only chance was for Stafford to do something spectacular.

The change in scenery didn’t result in a change of mindset, as Stafford continued gambling by throwing the ball over the middle of the field, resulting in some untimely turnovers.

Would the approach backfire in the playoffs?

It did on the Rams’ first sustained drive Sunday.

With the ball on the 49ers’ three-yard line, Stafford tried to force a ball to Kupp, who had defensive back K’Waun Williams on his back. Williams stuck his left hand between Kupp’s arms and deflected the ball to safety Jimmie Ward.


Entering the fourth quarter, the Rams were down 17-7. An 11-yard pass to Kupp early the fourth reduced the deficit to 17-14.

Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald, left, celebrates with quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald, left, celebrates with quarterback Matthew Stafford. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

On the Rams’ next drive, Stafford misfired on a deep ball, throwing it right at 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt — only for Tartt to drop it. The 49ers paid dearly for the mistake, as Stafford linked up with Odell Beckham Jr. for 29 yards — a personal foul by the 49ers added 15 yards to the gain — and Kupp for 16. Gay’s 40-yard field goal tied the score with 6 minutes 53 seconds remaining.

“He had that look in his eyes all game,” Beckham said of Stafford. “He motivated us. He pushed us. One play at a time. He drove us down. And he’s been doing that all postseason. All season, really, since I’ve been here.”

The deciding drive started with 6:26 on the clock. Stafford completed short passes to Van Jefferson, Kendall Blanton and Beckham, then hit Kupp on a slant for 25 yards to advance the ball into the red zone.

Gay kicked the Rams into the Super Bowl four plays later.

“Long time coming,” Stafford said. “Spent a lot of years in this league and I've loved every minute of it. I feel blessed to be able to play in this league for as long as I have, but I sure am happy for this opportunity for not only myself but really so many guys in that locker room that deserve this too.”

Three years ago, Goff also won this game. He also played in a Super Bowl.

The Rams are now counting on Stafford to do against the Cincinnati Bengals what Goff couldn’t against the New England Patriots: win the final game of the season.

Imagine what the view from that stage would be like.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.