Matthew Stafford leads Rams to last-second playoff win over Tom Brady and Buccaneers

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Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp hauls in a catch against Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr.
Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp hauls in a 44-yard catch against Tampa Bay's Antonio Winfield to set up the winning field goal. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Matthew Stafford had 42 seconds to prove it.

Forty-two seconds to show why the Rams traded for him and made him the centerpiece of a team with a mandate to play in the Super Bowl. Forty-two seconds to knock off Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Stafford said his heart was racing Sunday when he trotted onto the field with the score tied in the NFC divisional-round playoff at Raymond James Stadium, but the 13th-year pro demonstrated nothing but calm a few plays later while staring down an all-out blitz.

Stafford’s 44-yard pass to Cooper Kupp set up Matt Gay’s game-winning field goal as time expired for a 30-27 victory before a crowd of 65,597 that sent the Rams into the NFC championship game against the San Francisco 49ers.

“I live for those kind of moments,” Stafford said. “I would have loved to have been taking a knee when you’re up by three scores, but it’s a whole lot more fun when you got to make a play like that to win the game and just steal somebody’s soul.”

Despite losing four fumbles and blowing a 27-3 lead, the Rams took a giant step toward playing in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium.

Stafford passed for two touchdowns and sneaked for another, Kupp amassed 183 yards receiving, the defense neutralized Brady for most of the game and Gay and special teams came through again as the Rams advanced to play the 49ers next Sunday at SoFi Stadium.

Coach Sean McVay was thrilled with the outcome but appeared to still be processing a wild fourth quarter when he met with reporters.

“It was something else,” he said.

Something about the Brady-led Buccaneers brings out the best in the Rams.

They won on this field in 2020 and at SoFi Stadium in the third game of this season. In the latter victory, the Rams showed early signs that they would be a Super Bowl contender.

But after a 7-1 start, that image faded during a three-game losing streak. The Rams revived it during a five-game winning streak, only to blow a 17-point lead and lose to the 49ers in the season finale.

Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald (99) gets to Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) in the NFC divisional playoff game.
Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald (99) gets to Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) in the NFC divisional playoff game. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

That defeat cost the Rams the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, but it did not stop them from earning the right to host the NFC championship game — with an assist from the 49ers, who knocked off the top-seeded Green Bay Packers on Saturday night in Green Bay.

All the Rams needed to do Sunday was defeat a Buccaneers team that had lost only one game at home. All they had to do was beat the 44-year-old Brady, a seven-time Super Bowl champion.

And they did.

Stafford outdueled Brady, completing 28 of 38 passes for 366 yards and touchdowns to Kupp and Kendall Blanton. Brady completed 30 of 54 passes for 329 yards and a touchdown, with an interception. He was sacked three times and pressured into hurrying passes throughout the game.

Now, if McVay and the Rams can only solve the 49ers.

The Rams have not defeated the 49ers since 2018, when they made their run to Super Bowl LII. Since then, McVay has lost six games in a row against 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, his friend, mentor and nemesis.

In the Rams' most recent defeat, 49ers fans all but took over SoFi Stadium and forced Stafford and the Rams’ offense to go to a silent count. That should not be a problem in what will be only the second matchup between the NFC West rivals in a conference title game.

“You wouldn’t want it no other way,” Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald said.

Though McVay said “there’s no style points in the playoffs,” the Rams probably cannot afford to repeat their miscues if they want to beat the 49ers.

Just as they blew a lead against the 49ers, they let a 24-point, third-quarter lead over Tampa slip away with a series of fumbles, including one by Kupp and another on an errant snap.

Leonard Fournette’s one-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter pulled the Buccaneers to within 27-13, and Brady’s 55-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans late in the fourth cut the lead to seven.

Rams running back Cam Akers (23) fumbles the ball late in the game against the Buccaneers.
Rams running back Cam Akers (23) fumbles the ball late in the game against the Buccaneers. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Cam Akers’ second fumble gave the ball back to the Buccaneers with 2:25 left, and Fournette scored with a nine-yard touchdown run as Tampa tied it with 42 seconds remaining.

On came Stafford, who engineered game-winning drives against the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens this season.

“He had a look in his eye,” McVay said.

The final sequence did not start well — Stafford was sacked on first down. But on the next play, he completed a 20-yard pass to Kupp, setting up the key play of the game.

McVay instructed Stafford to get the offense lined up quickly to prevent the Buccaneers from having time to adjust. Kupp was set to run what he described as a “Love of the Game” route, a pattern designed to help others get open.

But when the Buccaneers came with an all-out blitz, Kupp became the main option.

Stafford lofted a high pass to the middle of the field.

“It felt like the ball hung up there for like 12 seconds,” McVay said.

Said Kupp: “It felt like it hung up there forever.”

Kupp grabbed the pass and was tackled at the 12-yard line. Stafford rushed to take another snap and spiked the ball to stop the clock. Then he hopped toward the sideline and shouted.

“I don’t know what I said,” Stafford said. “All the guys on the sideline were like, ‘Man, you were in a dark place.’

“And I said, ‘Sometimes you gotta to go those places, you know, to make some plays happen.' So, man, I was enjoying the moment.”

Stafford felt even better when Gay came on and kicked a 30-yard field goal.

The Rams had won the game — and stolen the Buccaneers’ soul.

“That’s what it feels like sometimes where they’re sitting there going, ‘Man, we just had this great comeback,’ and you get to reach in there and take it from them,” Stafford said. “That’s a whole lot of fun.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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