NFC Champion Rams are One Win From Validation for the Matthew Stafford Trade

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJanuary 31, 2022

Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay, left, and Matthew Stafford celebrate after the NFC Championship NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. The Rams won 20-17 to advance to the Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals are all about building through the draft. There have been free-agent additions (edge-rusher Trey Hendrickson), but key contributors like quarterback Joe Burrow, running back Joe Mixon and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase all began their careers in the Queen City.

The Los Angeles Rams have taken a different approach to team-building—the "we're going to win today future-be-damned" approach. Thanks to a bevy of trades, the Rams haven't made a selection in the first round since selecting Jared Goff first overall back in 2016. Los Angeles won't pick again in Round 1 until at least 2024 after swinging a trade before the season for Goff's replacement under center.

The trade that brought Matthew Stafford to La-La Land was criticized and lauded in equal measure. For every fan and pundit who applauded the move as the final piece in a Super Bowl puzzle, there was another who lambasted it as an overly expensive transaction for a veteran signal-caller who shrinks in the big moment.

Well, after a dozen seasons in Detroit (and three losses in as many postseason starts), Stafford led the Rams to a 12-5 record and an NFC West title. He won his first career playoff game in downing the Arizona Cardinals. Won his second in taking out Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champions in Tampa. And then Sunday, Stafford and the Rams outlasted the San Francisco 49ers to advance to the second Super Bowl of the Sean McVay era.

The Rams went all-in on winning now. Mortgaged the future to win in the present. And as Los Angeles prepares to become the second consecutive team to "host" a Super Bowl in their home stadium, the franchise is one victory away from seeing that bold strategy pay off with a Lombardi trophy.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

It was a year ago to the day that the Rams agreed to give up a third-round pick in 2021, first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 and quarterback Jared Goff for Stafford. Back in March, Rams general manager Les Snead told Stu Jackson of the team's website that the motivation for the trade was simple.

"Put simply, [it was a] chance to bet on going from good to great at that position," Snead said. "And especially from where our team was, our core group of players, where they were in their career, the coaching staff we have, felt like it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up."

For the most part, Stafford has held up his end of the deal. On the way to leading the Rams to 12 wins and a division title, Stafford threw for 4,886 yards (third-most in the league), tied a career-high with 41 touchdown passes (second in the NFL), posted a passer rating of over 100 for just the second time in his career and averaged over eight yards an attempt for the second time. Thanks to an instant rapport with Cooper Kupp, the fifth-year receiver led the league in catches, yards and touchdowns.

The gaudy numbers carried over into the postseason. In the win over the Buccaneers, Stafford completed 28 of 38 passes for 366 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He posted similar numbers in Sunday's win over the 49ers—45 attempts, 31 completions, 337 yards and two more scores.

While talking to Erin Andrews of FOX Sports after Sunday's win, Stafford made it clear he wasn't about to let his first chance at a Super Bowl slip away.

"That was an unbelievable performance by our team," Stafford said. "It didn't start the way we wanted it to, but our guys battled. I said in the locker room, 'there's no way we're not going to win this damn game. And our guys put our minds to it and came out and did it. So proud of this group, man."

Now, Stafford was far from flawless this season—he threw 17 interceptions, which tied Jacksonville's Trevor Lawrence for the NFL lead. He threw a costly interception in the end zone Sunday and would have had a second if 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt could catch even a little bit.

It's also not like Stafford carried the team this far on his own. Whether it's long-time Rams like Kupp and defensive tackle Aaron Donald or fellow newcomers like running back Sony Michel, wide receiver Odell Beckham and edge-rusher Von Miller, there have been plenty of players who made big contributions to the Rams NFC title.

But it can't be denied that the Los Angeles passing game is light-years better under Stafford than it ever was with Goff at the helm. Stafford's numbers are better nearly across the board than even Goff's own Super Bowl season back in 2018. Per the Associated Press, head coach Sean McVay said that Stafford also has a veteran presence and fire that just can't be measured statistically.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

"He's very poised in front of the media and he's poised during games, but he's got a lot of stuff to him that I think people wouldn't realize," McVay added. "And that's exactly what you want from your quarterback. I love that fire that he has."

Of course, composure or no, Stafford is in uncharted territory now—his 3-3 record in the postseason only had that second three in it until a few weeks ago. None of the Rams playoff wins have been easy, and Stafford played a part in letting the Buccaneers back in the game and keeping the 49ers in it Sunday. If Stafford throws three picks in two weeks and the Rams lose, the naysayers will go right back to blasting the Rams for giving up too much to get a player who can't do the job when it matters most.

But the NFL is a results-oriented business. Mistakes or no, Stafford did enough to make the Rams one of the last two teams standing this season. And Vegas appears to have at least some faith in the 33-year-old—the Rams opened as a four-point favorite over Joe Burrow and the Bengals at DraftKings.

Beating the red-hot Bengals won't be easy—Cincy is loaded on offense, and Burrow is rapidly ascending to superstar status. But if Stafford can play one more good game at home and lead the Rams to a victory in Super Bowl LVI, then all those years of futility in Motown will be forgotten.

So will the hefty price it took to bring Stafford to Los Angeles—and Snead and McVay will be hailed for doing what it took to bring the Rams their first championship since the 1999 season.


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