INGLEWOOD, Calif. — A few minutes after the confetti flurried around Matthew Stafford at his new home Sunday night, and it began to sink in that he was going to the Super Bowl, he started thinking of how ridiculous and incredible this situation with the Rams has been. And how lucky he is that he went on vacation in Mexico a year ago.
A year ago, at this very moment.
True story: The trade between the Lions and Rams, spawned when Stafford and Rams coach Sean McVay met (by chance, they both insist) at a resort while vacationing, happened quite literally a year ago this night—the same night Stafford was digesting that he was finally going to play in the game he’d always dreamed of playing.
Agreement to send Stafford from Detroit to the Rams for Jared Goff and picks and money: Jan. 30, 2021, 6:45 p.m. Pacific Time.
Confetti landing on Stafford at Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” blared at SoFi Stadium: Jan. 30, 2022, 6:45 p.m. Pacific Time.
“It’s crazy,” Stafford told me in between hugs with euphoric teammates in a hallway outside the Rams’ locker room. “I mean, crazy. It’s a story that, to this day, I feel like a lot of people still can’t believe.
“Sometimes, still, I can’t believe it. And now this.”
Pause. Stafford is a practiced interviewee, but the weird irony of this moment might make the most programmed person pause.
“I never thought that was ever gonna happen, not in a hundred years.”
That’s the kind of Championship Sunday it was. Not in a hundred years. How about 100 days? Who could have envisioned a Bengals-Rams Super Bowl as the season neared the halfway point in late October? One hundred days ago, who would have predicted:
• Cincinnati, losers to the Jets in Week 8, would be AFC champions?
• Von Miller, languishing in Denver, would be dealt to L.A. at the trade deadline, and end up in the Super Bowl?
• Odell Beckham Jr., scorned in Cleveland, would be dumped by the Browns in November and turn out to be a key piece to the McVay offense, and end up in his first Super Bowl?
• A rookie kicker, Evan McPherson, who missed two field goals in an overtime loss to Green Bay, just a guy in midseason, would go 4-for-4 in all three playoff games and kick Cincinnati to its first Super Bowl in 34 years?
• Football’s current jewel franchise, Kansas City, would flop around at home and lose the AFC title game to a team that hadn’t played in one in three decades, to a team KC’s Frank Clark called “the best team and smartest team” in Arrowhead? The Cincinnati Bengals.
It might take a few days for Midwesterners to digest this one: Matthew Stafford is going to the Super Bowl. His quarterbacking foe will be Cincinnati savior Joe Burrow, the quarterback who lost the Ohio State starting quarterback job to Dwayne Haskins less than four years ago.
Yes, this is a weird one. Weird, but quite compelling.
The NFL never had a home Super Bowl team for 54 Super Bowls. Now we’ve seen two in a row: Tampa Bay last year, the Rams this year.
Never has a Super Bowl featured such low seeds. Cincinnati (13-7) and L.A. (15-5) are both four seeds, and this is the first Super Bowl since the NFL went to 12 playoffs teams in 1990 that two teams below the third seed have met. It’s a sign of what this season was like, really. Just as we couldn’t see the Bengals in this game in midseason, we also couldn’t see the Ravens losing their last six, Miami finishing 8-1 and firing its coach, Sean Payton walking away from the creation he built in New Orleans, and Tom Brady verging on retirement. Just an odd year.
Another oddity: Matthew Stafford never won a playoff game in 12 seasons in Detroit. Now he’s won three in 20 days. I am not prescient on reading looks on people’s faces, but when I looked in Stafford’s eyes last night, I am sure I saw relief.
There was so much on the line for the Rams here, and it started one year ago last night, when a Rams delegation (GM Les Snead, COO Kevin Demoff and VP/Football Administration Tony Pastoors) got on a Zoom call with a Lions delegation to work out details of a Goff-for-Stafford trade. Stafford quietly had gone to the Lions begging for his freedom after 12 years of bad teams there, and the Lions quietly acceded to his request, and now it was matter of finding a deal that worked for both teams. McVay and Stafford and partners saw each other at a Mexican resort, and the men started talking football, and the next thing they knew, they wanted to be football-wed.
Was it the truth that it was a coincidental meeting in Mexico? Totally unplanned?
“One hundred percent,” Stafford reiterated Sunday night. All innocent, he meant.
New Lions GM Brad Holmes had other suitors for Stafford—Carolina, Washington, Chicago, New England (sort of), so the offer would have to be good. The Rams made it very good, and the deal got done, and there was a weird feeling of satisfaction and grim relief, because it was clear McVay had lost confidence in Goff.
“I mean, it’s two weeks after the season, and it’s totally unexpected,” Demoff said Sunday night. “We’re trading the quarterback who led us to the Super Bowl, the face of our franchise, the first big decision we made after our move to L.A. That night, it started the all-in narrative for us.”
The Rams won a playoff game last year with Goff. Trading him meant they thought they could win more than just a playoff game. They thought they could win it all.
This is a different franchise than the other 31. But it is not a senseless franchise, just because it trades first-round picks the way the rest of us change socks. The outside world sees trading second- and third-round picks for a declining Von Miller, and trading two ones and a three plus Goff, plus money thrown in, for Stafford, who’d never won a playoff game or a division title in 12 Detroit years, and thinks it’s the most live-for-today team in recent football history. It might be, but hear them out.
“We’ve had the second-most draft choices in the league since Sean took over as coach,” Demoff said. “We just haven’t had them in the first round. We draft [Penn State safety] Nick Scott in the seventh round in 2019 as mostly a special teams player. When we draft guys in lower rounds, the goal is not to have them come in right away and play; it’s to train them so at some point they’re more than special-teams guys—they’ve got a chance to be key players.”
Scott’s a perfect example. With Covid and injuries battering the Rams in December, he started to see more playing time at safety, not just in the kicking game. He’s started all three playoff games, and last week in Tampa, he made one of the big plays of the season for the Rams, intercepting Tom Brady on the way to L.A.’s 19-16 win. Another six-tackle day Sunday helped the Rams get to the Super Bowl.
This game was loud, throughout. It looked to be about 55-45 San Francisco fans, but the odd thing was that it seemed the crowds were in competition with each other. Rams fans wanted to out-decibel Niners fans, and vice versa. “We’re going to kick their ass,” one 49ers fans in a BOSA 97 jersey said to me in my hotel lobby Sunday. “I mean, we’re gonna show them what team is taking over this stadium.” Neither team did—it was deafening throughout, by both sides. Such is what happens when fans of a team with Super Bowl tradition, the 49ers, can travel to see a big game at a beautiful new stadium.
McVay did a good job figuring out how to win this game. He knew he’d have to put it in Stafford’s hands, and he was comfortable doing that. It was fitting that the man McVay was dying to get on his team was the guy the coach used to the max in the biggest game of the year. Stafford threw 24 passes in the first half and 21 in the second, and he was more efficient as the game went on.
Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr., played great games, and the Rams’ decision to go get Beckham in November paid off beautifully here. Kupp has been the dominant receiver in the NFL this year; no player in history, in fact, has had the combined regular- and post-season run that Kupp has had, with 170 catches for 2,333 yards in 20 games. But Beckham (nine catches, 113 yards) was every bit as important as Kupp. Once and for all, Beckham has proven at 29 that he’s not washed up. Whatever happened in Cleveland has stayed in Cleveland, and Beckham is happier than he’s ever been as a pro. “Everything here is done right,” Beckham said after this game.
The Niners looked to be on the way to their seventh straight win over the Rams when they took a 17-7 lead entering the fourth quarter. But then Stafford and his receivers made the plays that ended up winning the game. Finishing up a 75-yard drive with a classic McVay call got the game close. With 13:35 left, McVay called for a formation that lined up three receivers in a triangle-bunch to the left. Kupp, in the lower right, did a classic Kupp thing. He shaked-and-baked against a veteran corner, K’Waun Williams, used the fog of the three-receiver set to create confusion for the secondary, and …
“To be honest with you,” Stafford said, “San Francisco did a great job of masking some coverage there. We got a coverage that we probably didn’t think we were gonna get. But we got it. Cooper and I both recognized the coverage as the ball was snapped. He ran an unbelievable route, getting off his guy right after coming off the line. And when I saw him, that’s just … that’s chemistry. That’s us spending time together. We spend so much time together talking about football, talking about opportunities that might come up in a game. That’s how that play worked.”
Kupp got a step-and-a-half on Williams, and Stafford’s throw to the left side of the end zone was perfect. That made it 17-14. Stafford alternated between Kupp and Beckham on the tying and winning field-goal drives. McVay praised Beckham for his smarts after the game, and his work with Stafford to become a co-favorite receiver alongside the brilliant Kupp for Stafford. But what impressed me in this game was Beckham’s toughness. He took a brutal helmet-to-helmet shot from Niners safety Jimmie Ward while make a great catch along the left sideline with 9:47 left, and he just shook it off and looked unaffected by it. Those things don’t go unnoticed by teammates … or coaches.
So now the Rams stay home for the Super Bowl, and their quarterback gets one more shot to prove this was the smartest trade of the McVay/Snead Era. Of all the storylines entering the season, one huge one was this: Is Stafford as good as the quarterback gurus all say he is, and will he finally prove it with a strong cast around him?
Stafford, after a 3-0 playoff run with one turnover in 12 quarters, is trending in the right direction. And you could tell in the mayhem of the Rams’ postgame thrillride he was loving it.
“Sure, I’ve dreamed about this,” Stafford told me. “I’ve loved football for a long time. Now it’s coming true—and now we’ve got a chance to go out there and win the Super Bowl. It’s a pretty unebelievable thing.”