Plaschke: Matthew Stafford proves he can win in playoffs, but can he beat the GOAT?

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Los Angeles, California January 17, 2022: Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford waves to the fans.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford waves to the fans after defeating the Cardinals in an NFC wild-card playoff game. It was Stafford's first postseason win after going 0-3 with the Detroit Lions. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

He took the field amid thousands of waving towels, carrying the weight of a dozen years of failure, the object of every question, the bearer of every hope.

Matthew Stafford shrugged, grabbed the burden by its pained neck, and flung it.

A gentle screen to Cooper Kupp. A perfect strike to Odell Beckham Jr. A patient laser to Tyler Higbee. A gorgeous loft to Beckham in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. A dart to Higbee. A soaring bit of perfection to Beckham.

Six initial passes, six splendid completions, a resounding opening statement that ended with the Rams quarterback twice throwing his body into a violent goal-line scrum while grinding out a new truth.

You can no longer say that Matthew Stafford hasn’t won a playoff game.

The Rams player with the most to prove showed up, showed out, and showed everyone Monday night by leading the Rams to a 34-11 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC wild-card game at SoFi Stadium.

It was the first playoff win of Stafford’s 13-year career after three postseason losses in Detroit, it was all Hollywood, and it was crazy fun.

The most Rams-centric crowd of the season roared, a real home-field advantage, flapping yellow towels that read, “Champs.” The most pressure-filled Rams team in recent years danced, a true joyful release, with Beckham pointing to the alleged ice water in his veins, Von Miller shimmying over a sack, and everybody flying everywhere.

But mostly it was Stafford, finally winning deep in January, igniting it all, symbolizing it all with the greatest passer rating in Rams playoff history.

“It means a lot more to ... you guys,” Stafford said of his milestone. “I just want to be part of this team and help us win. ... I’m gonna go out and play and let the chips fall where they may.”

Others sounded more relieved that their best offensive player finally shed his career’s most offensive statistics.

“It’s good so you guys don’t have to talk about that anymore, so you can get that one out of the way,” coach Sean McVay said.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady passes against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady passes against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. Brady and the Bucs play host to the Rams in the divisional-round playoffs. (Jason Behnken / Associated Press)

Ah, but a different type of Stafford chatter continues. This was only the first step. Stafford must now wrangle a GOAT, as the Rams travel to Tampa next weekend to play Tom Brady and the defending champion Buccaneers in the NFC divisional round.

But this was a necessary step. It was a giant step. And it was, for Stafford, what was once considered an insurmountable step.

After Stafford was traded from the Lions last spring, the biggest rap against him in his 12-year career was that he had never won a big one.

Rap ripped. This was a big one, a gaudy one, a Ram-slide victory that moved the locals to within two wins of appearing in their backyard Super Bowl.

After Stafford struggled at the end of this season, with eight turnovers in his last three games while tying for the league high with 17 interceptions, the biggest fear was that he was worn out and overwhelmed.

Fear fizzled. Stafford was swaggering from the start, going six for his first six for 93 yards before finishing 13 for 17 for 202 yards, two touchdowns, his first rushing touchdown in six years, and a near-perfect 154.5 passer rating.

And, almost forgot, he committed no turnovers. Seriously. No interceptions, no fumbles, a clean game for a guy who has made some pretty big messes.

“That’s how I expect to play every game,” he said. “It doesn’t always happen that way, but it felt good out there, felt comfortable.”

It was a game that featured crunching Rams tacklers who turned the fancy Cardinals into a glorified college team, the defense holding them to 183 total yards while fooling quarterback Kyler Murray into horrible passes, dreadful decisions and two interceptions.

It was also a game that featured a return of a bruising Rams rushing attack in which Sony Michel and Cam Akers combined for 113 yards in 30 carries, an area vital to their continued advancement.

But the night belonged to Stafford. As he goes, the Rams go. He was their message. This is not a team that will focus on past failures. This is not a team to be burdened by burdens.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford stretches for extra yardage on a third-quarter run as Arizona's Deionte Thompson pursues.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford stretches for extra yardage on a third-quarter run as Arizona's Deionte Thompson pursues. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“Thought we had a great plan coming into the game,” Stafford said. “They showed us a few wrinkles on third down, but we were able to make the plays. We had a short field a bunch. The defense scored. Those kind of things are huge in any game, but are going to be magnified even more in the playoffs.”

The first Stafford touchdown pass, a four-yarder to Beckham late in the first quarter, came at the end of a soul-crushing, 10-play drive.

The Rams’ second touchdown, early in the second quarter, came on Stafford’s second consecutive quarterback sneak at the end of a nine-play drive. Both times he jumped into the middle of bunch of large and punching bodies. Both times he limped away. But he hung tough to get a rare score. Not only had he not scored a rushing touchdown this season, but he had not scored one since 2016.

Buoyed by a 21-0 lead forged on David Long Jr.’s interception return for a touchdown, Stafford made it 28-0 with a sidearm, seven-yard touchdown pass to Kupp after leading the team on a 75-yard drive.

He later completed a lovely, 41-yard downfield strike to Van Jefferson in the third quarter to set up one Matt Gay field goal, and a 29-yarder to Kupp to set up another one.

And now that he finally has a playoff win, McVay said nothing has changed.

“He’s still the same great player to me,” McVay said. “He always was before this game as well.”

Make no mistake, a victory for Stafford is also a victory for McVay, who put his reputation on the line last spring when he helped engineer the trade of Goff and two first-round picks.

Anything less than a Super Bowl appearance for this duo would be considered an abject failure. But, as they head for Tampa, it only gets tougher from here. The defending champions and their greatest quarterback ever will not go down without a fight.

Stafford actually outdueled Brady this season, when the Rams defeated the Buccaneers in Week 3 at SoFi with a 34-24 victory that wasn’t even that close. Stafford threw for 343 yards and four touchdowns while Brady threw for 432 yards and but one touchdown.

“It’s a huge challenge, tough place to play, obviously fantastic quarterback, they’re different from when we played them last,” Stafford said. “So are we.”

Yeah, the Rams now have a quarterback who has won a playoff game.

Just in time for the heat to be applied on Stafford to win his second one.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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