Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams outlast Tampa Bay Buccaneers in memorable playoff game that was 'a whole lot of fun'

ByBrady Henderson via via logo
January 23, 2022, 10:29 PM

TAMPA, Fla. -- When the Los Angeles Rams acquired Matthew Stafford in a blockbuster trade last winter, the veteran quarterback said he wanted to play in big games, an opportunity he seldom received during 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions.

Stafford and the Rams -- fresh off a dramatic 30-27 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium -- are now one victory away from the biggest game of all.

And they nearly blew their chance to get to the NFC Championship Game, losing four fumbles and a 27-3 third-quarter lead to Tom Brady and the defending champions before Stafford led a 63-yard drive in the closing seconds to set up the winning field goal.

"In my mind, I live for those kind of moments," said Stafford, who pulled off the 43rd game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime of his career, the most of anyone since he entered the league in 2009. "I would have loved to have been taking a knee up three scores, but it's a whole lot more fun when you've got to make a play like that to win the game and just steal somebody's soul. That's what it feels like sometimes where they're sitting there going, 'Man, we just had this great comeback.' And you get to reach in there and take it from them.

"That's a whole lot of fun."

Stressful, too.

The Rams' fourth lost fumble -- and running back Cam Akers' second of the game -- set up the Buccaneers' tying touchdown with 42 seconds left. On the ensuing drive, Stafford hit All-Pro receiver Cooper Kupp for gains of 20 and 44 yards to set up Matt Gay's 30-yard game-winner. What was nearly an epic collapse became an emotional victory that set up a date with the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at SoFi Stadium. Los Angeles will have the chance to do what Tampa Bay did last season and play in the Super Bowl on its home field.

According to Elias Sports Bureau research, the only other team to lose a 24-point lead in a playoff game and still win was the Chargers in 1981.

"That's why you play four quarters and try to finish that game out," Rams coach Sean McVay said. "That was something else. That was something else."

Stafford turned in another clean performance, tossing two touchdown passes, rushing for another and not throwing an interception for the second straight game. He again got help from his loaded cast of offensive players, and the Rams' star-studded defense sacked Brady three times and forced him to commit two turnovers, only to allow three touchdowns over the final 16 minutes. Two of those scores were set up by Rams fumbles -- Akers' second and an earlier one from Kupp -- that gave Tampa Bay the ball at the Los Angeles 30.

Von Miller stripped the ball from Brady and recovered it early in the fourth quarter. He was still celebrating on the sideline when he heard the crowd roar as Tampa Bay fell on a center snap that had sailed past an unready Stafford on the ensuing play.

The Rams pressured Brady 17 times, the most against him this season and his second most since joining the Buccaneers in 2020. He went 4-of-14 and took three sacks when pressured by the Rams.

"I'm still trying to process everything," Miller said. "Man, that was a crazy game. I knew it was going to come down to the end. All the times that I've played Tom Brady, it always comes down to the end, so I knew no lead that we had was safe."

The Rams became the first team to win a playoff game after losing four or more fumbles since the 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers, who won the AFC Championship Game against the Raiders despite four lost fumbles.

"As an offense, we first and foremost did a terrible job of executing for this team in the second half," Kupp said. "We can't do the things that we did. Put our defense, our team in a really bad spot."

Stafford completed 28 of 38 attempts for 366 yards, the third-most yardage in a single game in Rams postseason history. He tossed touchdown passes to backup tight end Kendall Blanton and Kupp, who finished with nine catches for 183 yards. His 70-yard TD pass to Kupp put the Rams up 17-3 early in the second quarter. Stafford's 1-yard rushing score -- his second score on a goal-line sneak in as many weeks -- made it 27-3.

So much for Stafford not being able to win in the playoffs.

He entered last week's wild-card game with the most regular-season touchdown passes (323) among quarterbacks without a playoff victory. Now, he's got two of them -- including one over the greatest quarterback of all time and the reigning champions in their building, where the Bucs had lost only once this season.

Stafford was 10-of-15 for 120 yards and a touchdown against the blitz. That includes his 44-yard completion to Kupp when the Rams had the ball at their 44-yard line with 26 seconds and no timeouts left.

On that play, Kupp said he ran what the Rams playfully refer to as a "love of the game" route, thinking he was running deep just to attract defenders and open something else up for another pass-catcher. But Stafford realized that a deep shot to Kupp was the best option when the Bucs made the aggressive decision to send six pass-rushers after him.

"It felt like that ball hung up for about 12 seconds," McVay said. "But those guys did a great job. I thought Matthew Stafford was unbelievable throughout the whole day. Just his poise, his command, his demeanor, his decision-making."

Gay made two field goals before his game winner and also missed from 47 yards midway through the fourth quarter.

The Rams were the NFC's No. 4 seed after winning the NFC West with a 12-5 record. The only other team seeded fourth or lower to host a conference championship game since 1990 was the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, who were also a No. 4 seed.

The 49ers defeated the Rams twice in the regular season, including a 27-24 overtime victory in Week 18 in which they rallied back from a 17-0 deficit.

"You don't want it no other way," said Rams All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who had three hits and a sack of Brady. "I feel like it's like the perfect setting. To get to where we need to get, we've got to play a divisional opponent that got the best of us the last couple times. So you wouldn't want it no other way than what we got right now. So get ready for a dog fight."

ESPN Stats & Information research was used in this report.

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