Matthew Stafford entered Monday night’s wild-card game against the Arizona Cardinals having never won in the playoffs, losing in all three of his appearances over 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions.
If only he had a team around him as talented as the one he now quarterbacks.
Stafford combined for three touchdowns, vastly outplaying Cardinals counterpart Kyler Murray, and the Los Angeles Rams got contributions from up and down their star-studded roster en route to a stress-free 34-11 win at SoFi Stadium. It filled the playoff hole in Stafford’s résumé and punched the Rams’ ticket to the divisional round, where they’ll face Tom Brady and the defending champion Buccaneers on Sunday in Tampa, Florida.
Stafford’s 323 career touchdown passes in the regular season were the most of any player without a playoff victory, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“I’m just excited for our team to get the win,” Stafford said. “What a team effort. Our defense played outstanding tonight, special teams basically set up a score with [punter] Johnny [Hekker] pinning them down there, did a great job on field goals. And we were good enough on offense to score some points and come away with the win. Just happy to be moving on.”
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Stafford turned in one of his most efficient performances of the season, even if it wasn’t his most prolific. He threw touchdown passes to Odell Beckham Jr. and Cooper Kupp and ran for another on a goal-line sneak for his first rushing TD since 2016. After ending the regular season with eight interceptions over the final four games, he didn’t commit a turnover against Arizona while finishing with a nearly perfect 154.5 passer rating.
His 13 completions and 17 attempts were easily season lows, while his 202 passing yards were his second fewest. His 17 attempts also were his fewest in a win in his career, regular season or playoffs, according to ESPN Stats & Information data.
With the Rams’ running game finding its groove from the get-go and their defense leaving Murray looking lost all night long, they didn’t need Stafford to carry the load.
Sony Michel, acquired just before the season via trade in the wake of Cam Akers’ Achilles tendon tear, rushed 13 times for 58 yards. Akers, in his second game back from that injury, went for 55 yards on 17 carries. Los Angeles’ 11 rushes in the first quarter and 38 rushes in all were both season highs.
The Rams held the Cardinals without a third-down conversion on nine tries and kept them off the scoreboard until 4:11 remained in the third quarter. The 183 total yards the Rams allowed were a season low and their fifth fewest under coach Sean McVay, per ESPN Stats & Information. They neutralized Murray’s legs and intercepted him twice, including a pick-six by cornerback David Long when Murray chucked the ball out of his own end zone under duress in order to avoid a safety.
“Guys were just flying around, playing fast, making big plays when we needed it,” said defensive tackle Aaron Donald, one of the Rams’ three first-team All-Pros, along with Kupp and cornerback Jalen Ramsey. “That’s what it’s about. When you got 11 guys out there, you expect everybody to make a play at any time. A bunch of guys did that and did a good job of containing him, making the quarterback uncomfortable. He threw the ball to us; we took advantage of it.”
The Rams also got an interception from defensive tackle Marquise Copeland.
At 3 yards, Long’s pick-six was the shortest in NFL postseason history, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.
That score gave the Rams a 21-0 lead heading into halftime. And unlike last week, when they led the San Francisco 49ers 17-0 only to lose in overtime, the Rams added on in the second half.
Early in the third quarter, McVay called a trick pass that had Beckham catching a lateral from Stafford then throwing to Akers for a 40-yard completion down the sideline. In another illustration of how dominant the Rams’ defensive effort was, that play gained 12 more yards than the 28 Murray had thrown for to that point.
Beckham said the play was installed this week and that the wind made it difficult to execute the throw in practice. He appreciated the coaching staff for keeping it in the game plan.
Akers couldn’t haul in a catchable deep ball from Stafford earlier in the game.
“The opportunity came up, I know I got to someone who’s easily gonna catch the ball,” Beckham said. “All I got to do is put it in the vicinity [to] Cam Akers, and he made the play.”
Bucs’ Defense Against Rams In Week 3
The Rams beat the Bucs 34-24 back in Week 3, in Los Angeles. Tampa Bay struggled to get pressure on Matthew Stafford that day and set season worsts defensively in multiple categories.
CATEGORY SEASON RANK
Yds per play 6.5 Worst
3rd down conv 10-15 Worst
Pass TD 4 Worst
Pressure pct 23% Worst
— ESPN Stats & Information
Beckham became the first player in NFL postseason history to finish with a 30-yard reception and a 30-yard completion in the same game. He caught four passes for 54 yards and hauled in the first playoff TD of his career.
“I feel like I’ve gotten to a certain age where I’m a realist and not an idealist, and I understood the situation of what I was coming into in this team and everything that they were capable of,” Beckham said. “And it just feels amazing to get that win. Get the first one off your back. Now knowing it’s just time to put it together and make a run.”
The Rams signed Beckham and traded for pass-rusher Von Miller (one sack, three tackles for loss) earlier this season in the two latest instances of the team loading up on star players in a bid to follow in the Bucs’ footsteps and win the Super Bowl on their home field.
That also included their offseason trade for Stafford, who looked every bit the upgrade over Jared Goff they envisioned.
“I thought he did a great job leading the way,” McVay said of Stafford. “He’s still the same great player to me. And he always was before this game, as well. So I think it’s good so you guys don’t have to talk about [him not having a playoff win] 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.”
Against the blitz, Stafford went 7-of-8 for a season-high 148 yards and the touchdown pass to Kupp, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Stafford now has 16 TDs and one interception against the blitz this season, including Monday night’s game. He was pressured on only six dropbacks, one shy of his fewest dropbacks under pressure this season.
Kupp, who became the fourth player since 1970 to lead the league in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, topped the Rams with five catches for 61 yards.
Stafford called the looming matchup with Tampa Bay “a huge challenge,” noting the Bucs’ success at home, where they were 7-1 this season at Raymond James Stadium.
“Obviously, a fantastic quarterback, great defense, a really good football team,” Stafford said.
The Rams were one of only three teams to beat the Bucs — 34-24 in Week 3 — during the regular season.
“I think their team is different than when we played them last, and I think we are, too, both [in] personnel and scheme a little bit. You always evolve throughout the season,” Stafford said. “So it’ll be interesting to see what they look like here as of late, and we’ll go out there, attack and see what happens.”
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