Matthew Stafford’s defining playoff moment with Rams upstages Tom Brady, Bucs’ comeback story

Did you think Matthew Stafford would lead the Rams to the NFC championship game with 42 seconds left?

Be honest.

Tampa Bay rallied from a 27-3 second-half deficit in the NFC divisional playoff matchup on Sunday in what appeared to be Tom Brady’s most ridiculous comeback to date. The Rams had the ball and a two-TD lead with 4:31 left in the fourth quarter, but that almost comical Brady sequence played out too quickly.

Rams three and out. Brady threw a 55-yard TD to Mike Evans. The rams lose the ball. Leonard Fournette scores a game-tying touchdown. Comparisons to that and Brady’s 28-3 comeback in Super Bowl 52 were beginning and there were still 42 seconds left on the clock.

This seemed like another chapter in the “Man in the Arena” series, and with Brady these games were almost always foregone conclusions.

Give Stafford what he deserves. He provided the plot twist. The former No. 1 pick who waited 13 years to win a playoff game did what Atlanta’s Matt Ryan couldn’t with 57 seconds remaining. Won the game.

Stafford’s 44-yard pass to Cooper Kupp set up Matt Gay’s 30-yard field goal as time expired. The Rams beat the Buccaneers 30-27 and advanced to the conference championship game against NFC West rival San Francisco 49ers.

No way, right? That’s Stafford. He didn’t fret, even when the Brady thing unfolded. Stafford was 28 of 38 for 366 yards and two TDs, and completed 74.5% of his passes in two playoff wins. Now it also has the NFC stage.

Stafford and Brady were the only two quarterbacks with at least 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns in 2021. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, who had tormented Stafford all those years in Detroit, was also cut. On a weekend in which both of the top MVP candidates were eliminated from the NFC playoffs, Stafford delivered what could be the defining pitch of the postseason.

That’s a pitch that proved Sean McVay and the Rams right for the bold offseason move that sent former No. 1 pick Jared Goff to Detroit. Consider both units in advance. Los Angeles went three-and-out on three running plays to force Tampa Bay to use their timeouts, and Cam Akers’ fumble followed on the next drive. After the Buccaneers tied the game, Stafford was sacked on the first play of the final drive.

The Rams could have gone into overtime from there, but anyone who watched Super Bowl 51 or the 2018 AFC championship game against Kansas City knows how that ends. Brady didn’t allow Kansas City’s Ryan or Patrick Mahomes to touch the ball in overtime. This felt like the next.

Especially with Stafford on the other side. Go back to all those almost-moments that happened in 12 years with Detroit. This felt like an extended cut from one of those games where Stafford went to great lengths to put his team in position to win, only to see dumb luck show up late in the game and take it away.

But McVay trusted Stafford in the clutch, hitting Kupp on a 20-yard pass near the sideline before going back to his star receiver on the next play.

It’s the play that could define Stafford’s career. He read the bombardment in the slot, delivered a perfect pass to Kupp over the safety help and managed to lead the offense to get the finisher before time expired. Stafford celebrated beating the clock. Brady could only watch this time.

That set up the game-winning field goal. It was an incredible way to eliminate the defending Super Bowl champions and another twist on one of the best divisional playoff weekends in recent memory.

It’s not like the Rams are big favorites in the NFC championship game. The 49ers swept the regular-season series, including an overtime thriller in Week 18. San Francisco is two years away from its last Super Bowl appearance, and this is Stafford’s chance on the NFC championship stage. .

Stafford has Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr., a tandem that combined for 15 catches for 252 yards and a TD. The Rams have a star-studded roster that’s good enough to win it all, and the quarterback isn’t a question mark right now. Can San Francisco say the same for Jimmy Garoppolo?

Better question: Do you think Stafford can lead the Rams to a Super Bowl?

He answered that question in 42 seconds on Sunday.