How Matthew Stafford’s ‘love the game’ game won it for the Rams

By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports NFL Writer

Moments later Matt Gay made his 26-yard field goal as time expired for the win, Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay sprinted along the sideline to find the quarterback Matthew Stafford.

The two hugged near midfield. McVay leaned down to say a few words in his QB’s ear, concluding with “I love you!” before leaving to shake hands with Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians.

“He’s our leader,” an emotionally exhausted McVay said of Stafford afterwards. “We love him. What an amazing job he did on a huge stage today against the reigning world champions.”

Stafford still had his helmet on minutes after leading the Rams on a three-play 72-yard drive with just 42 seconds left, putting LA in field goal position for an unlikely 30-27 win over the Bucs in the NFC Divisional Round. playoffs at Raymond James Stadium.

The Rams took a 27-3 lead, weathered a nightmarish second-half slump that included four fumbles against the Tom Brady-led Buccaneers and looked set to suffer the same fate as many other teams who faced the seven-time Super Bowl champion.

“I put our defense there in a terrible spot,” said Rams receiver Cooper Kupp, who lost a fumble, as well as two by Cam Akers and a bad shot past Stafford by center Brian Allen. “You never want to do that. We preach on the touchline before we go out: ball safety. And I kind of started the slow trickle of what our attack turned into there.”

But Sunday against the best of all time in Brady, Stafford did what McVay led him to do in Los Angeles: he put the Rams in position to make it to the Super Bowl.

Moments such as Sunday’s victory over Tampa Bay validate McVay’s decision to secure the services of Stafford nearly a year ago, when he traded Jared Goff, two first-round picks and a pick. third round at the Detroit Lions for the 33-year-old. -old signal-caller.

With the win, the Rams are one win away, having qualified for the NFC Championship Game at SoFi Stadium, home of this year’s Super Bowl.

This game will be a rematch for the Rams against their NFC West rivals, the San Francisco 49ers (6:30 p.m. ET Sunday on FOX). McVay hasn’t beaten Niners coach Kyle Shanahan in six games. Overall, the Rams have a seven-game losing streak against San Francisco.

Nonetheless, the Rams were installed as 3.5-point favorites.

“We have to prepare for a team that we know has been a very tough game for us,” McVay said. “They did an amazing job. It will be a great game.”

The Rams joined San Francisco and the Cincinnati Bengals as road teams qualifying for title games.

Down 20 points with 7:07 left in the third quarter, Tampa Bay looked out of place. But as he did three years ago, when the New England Patriots led the Atlanta Falcons 28-3 in the Super Bowl, Brady rallied his team.

The Bucs scored on four of their next seven possessions, the last set up by Akers’ second fumble of the game. That led to a 9-yard touchdown by Leonard Fournette, his second of the game, to tie it at 27.

To the Rams’ credit, they didn’t panic. Instead of playing for extra time, with 42 seconds and a time out, McVay gave the go-ahead for Stafford to move the ball downfield into scoring position.

The trip did not start well. The first and 10 from the Rams 25-yard line, Stafford tried to rush in midfield but was sacked for a 1-yard loss by Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul.

“I thought I was going to direct it,” Stafford said afterwards. “It was a bad idea.”

However, at second and 11 from the 24-yard line, Stafford found Kupp for a 20-yard gain on the 44-yard line on an out route.

The Rams chose not to huddle, forcing Tampa Bay to line up quickly. Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles decided to blitz, dispatching six rushers and leaving midfield open. Worse, the total blitz was not communicated to everyone on the field, according to Tampa Bay defensive players who later spoke to reporters.

Kupp, lined up in the slot on the right of the formation, executed what the Rams call a “Love of the game” pattern – essentially a clear, decoy lane deep in the field, creating a void in the defense for other receivers to s open below.

However, with the Tampa Bay blitz and no safe depth, Stafford looked to get the ball to Kupp early, hitting him with a perfect pass in stride. Kupp carried it and was tackled by Antoine Winfield Jr. at the Tampa Bay 12-yard line.

“He came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Was it zero?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,'” Stafford told reporters. “He followed his route and carried, felt no upper shelf on the cover [and] was like, ‘I better get my eyes back.’ He looked up and said this thing was floating. He arrived at the right place. It was fun.”

Kupp, who finished the regular season as the NFL Triple Crown winner, leading the league in receptions (145), receiving yards (1,947) and receiving touchdowns (16), still has a times been spectacular. The Eastern Washington product finished Sunday with nine receptions for 183 yards and a score. Kupp didn’t play in the Rams’ 2018 Super Bowl due to a left ACL injury, so he’ll have an opportunity this time around if the Rams can win next week.

After Kupp’s catch, Stafford slammed the ball to the ground after spiked it with four seconds left, screaming as the fielding unit took the field.

“I don’t know what I said there,” the QB told reporters. “All the guys along the sideline were like, ‘Man, you were in a dark place.’ I said, “Sometimes you have to go to these places to play games.” Man, I was enjoying the moment.

“In my mind, I live for those kinds of moments. I would have liked to take a knee on three scores, but it’s a lot more fun when you have to make a play like that to win the game and just steal the soul of someone.”

You can’t fault Stafford for being a little overenthusiastic. Going into the playoffs, he hadn’t won a playoff game in his 13-year career. But he used to perform well in late game situations. Stafford now has 43 game-winning drives, tying him with Brett Favre for sixth place in league history.

He finished Sunday 28 for 38 (73.7%) for 366 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Equally important, after throwing a league-high 17 interceptions in the regular season, Stafford did not return the ball in his two playoff games with the Rams.

With Stafford and Kupp, the Rams had several guys stepping up and making plays. Odell Beckham Jr. finished with six receptions for 69 yards. Aaron Donald, Von Miller and Leonard Floyd each had a sack. Playing in place of left tackle Andrew Whitworth, Joe Noteboom has done a good job of helping to keep Stafford clean. The QB was only sacked twice during the day.

Cut by the Buccaneers a season earlier in favor of Ryan Succop, Gay got some revenge on his former team by scoring the winning basket. He missed a 49-yarder earlier in the game that would have given the Rams more cushion.

Brady, 44, was 30 for 54 for 329 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. The Bucs were shorthanded on offense, missing receiver Chris Godwin and right tackle Tristan Wirfs with an ankle injury.

Apparently considering retirement, Brady told reporters afterwards that he would take some time before making a decision.

However, Von Miller thinks we haven’t seen the last of Brady.

“I have a lot of respect for the guy,” Miller said. “The only reason not to like Tom Brady is because he’s winning. He’s a great guy, a hell of a leader. I don’t think this will be the end. He’s going to dust himself off and be good to go. .”

But Brady won’t be going to the NFC Championship Game. Instead, that’s where Matthew Stafford and the Rams are heading.

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for over a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @eric_d_williams.

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