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Rams-Buccaneers: 4 Things I learned in Rams clutch victory

Matthew Stafford proves his worth, Kupp for MVP, and other things I learned in the divisional round of the playoffs

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-Los Angeles Rams at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Rams did everything they could to give away the game in a 30-27 victory over the defending Super Bowl champs, but a brilliant last second drive catapulted LA over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and into the NFC Championship game.

Sunday was a rollercoaster to say the least. A 27-3 lead at its highest point, a 27-27 at its lowest point, and a 30-27 win at the very end. The souls of the Ram faithful were stolen for at least a quarter of play—and when Leonard Fournette broke a run to the right and walked into the end zone untouched for the game tying score, a sense of dread all but darkened any glimmer of hope; Tom Brady was about to play the role of Grim Reaper yet again.

And yet it was Matthew Stafford, one of the most criticized quarterbacks in the NFL, that stole the souls of the Buccaneers faithful instead.

“All the guys on the sideline were like ‘man you were in a dark place,’ I said ‘sometimes you got to go to those places to make some plays happen.’ I was enjoying the moment. In my mind, I live for those kind of moments,” Stafford explained in his post game conference, “I would have loved to have been taking a knee up three scores. It’s a whole lot more fun when you got to make a play like that to win a game and just steal somebody’s soul, that’s what it feels like sometimes... you get to reach in there and take it from them and that’s a whole lot of fun.”

It would be easy to criticize the Rams for their four fumbles and their missed opportunities throughout the game. It would be easy to blame Jalen Ramsey, one of the highest compensated players in the NFL at his position, for allowing Mike Evans to get open down the field. It would be easy to point out the glaring issues that seem to have recently began haunting LA in the second half of games. I’m sure you will find many other media outlets condemning the Rams for their near collapse; but here you will find none of that. Here are the things I learned in an inspiring last second victory.

Matthew Stafford, the soul crusher

Stafford’s chilling words following the game was one of the most raw, uncensored responses you may ever hear come out of a quarterback’s mouth on the podium and yet they were perfect. With the game slipping out of control, it was Stafford who rose up to the occasion and seized hold of the win.

His fierceness as a competitor was on full display and suddenly it became clear why the Rams mortgaged their future on him—for these moments. When the rest of the team was folding under pressure, when its stars were imploding on themselves like a black hole, Stafford came on to the field with just 35 seconds left in the game without a doubt in his mind that he was going to win.

(37:25) “I’d say it felt like it hung up there forever... Matthew did a great job just buying time, putting the ball up, letting me run underneath it,” explained Cooper Kupp, “I’m not sure how he knew exactly where I was going to end up so quickly, but just a great great job hitting me in stride—one of those ones where all you can do is just dig, dig out your route, look up for the ball and hope that it’s floating up there. It’s just a great play by Matthew putting the ball where it needed to be.”

Stafford’s game will be remembered by his final two plays to Kupp to set up the game winning field goal, but let us not forget what he did before the game was on the line. Stafford finished with 366 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions. His QBR of 121.5 was 49.3 points higher than Tom Brady’s 72.7 as the 13 year seasoned veteran outdueled the 44 year old GOAT for three straight quarters.

Stafford’s mistakes throughout the regular season put his team in positions to lose games, but the opposite was true in this one. Going into the playoffs many casted their judgement on the turnover-prone quarterback and believed he did not have what it took to win games against the league’s best. Stafford was great against the Arizona Cardinals; he was phenomenal against the Bucs—and now his play has earned him the chance to punch his ticket into the Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday.

Cooper Kupp for MVP

Both frontrunners for the MVP award have been knocked out of the playoffs with losses in the divisional round. The argument could be made that both Aaron Rodgers and Brady did not do enough to win for their team, though Brady did come close after three quarters of horrific play. Kupp’s name remains low on the list as the fifth most likely candidate for MVP at +2000 odds.

While Stafford should get the credit he is due, Kupp’s outstanding play on Sunday is a big part of how Los Angeles got ahead so quickly against Tampa. He finished with 183 yards on nine receptions, averaged 20.33 yards per reception, and had an incredible 70 yard touchdown that put the Rams up by 14 points early in the second quarter.

Kupp has already put together one of the greatest regular season performances by a wide receiver in NFL history and is now attempting to prove his worth on the leagues biggest stage. When the game was on the line, Stafford relied on his clutch receiver to make the big plays. There is not a single player, coach, or fan watching the game that doesn’t know that the ball is going to Kupp and yet he is always finds himself open. If the MVP award truly goes to the ‘most valuable player’ on the field than the decision is easy. The award belongs in Kupp’s hands.

The defense is elite

The Rams offense has a knack for putting their defense in bad positions. The trope continued on Sunday. After making Brady look his age for three consecutive quarters, the Rams offense turned the ball over three times to give the Bucs every chance needed to make a comeback. Despite the score, the Rams defense proved that they have hit their stride in the playoffs and have earned elite status.

The argument against the Rams defense the game prior when they faced the Cardinals was that the moment was too big for Kyler Murray and the third year quarterback was shell-shocked by the stage of the playoffs; yet Brady had the same deer-in-the-headlights look on his face, and a little blood on his lip, as a relentless rush constantly hit home for Los Angeles. Brady was sacked three times but was consistently hurried and uncomfortable in the pocket. Donald hit home first, but it was Von Miller’s vintage strip-sack that nearly put the game away.

Then there were the role players, the ones that had to step in for a slew of injuries in the secondary. Nick Scott made a pivotal interception on Brady that nearly set up points at the end the half if not for an Akers fumble at the one yard line. David Long Jr. followed up his outstanding play in Arizona with a solid outing, finishing as the lead tackler against the Bucs. The defense as a whole forced Tampa to become one dimensional after shutting down their run game. Fournette finished the game with just 51 yards rushing and that was after he had 20 yards on just the first two plays of the game.

The defense will get some reinforcements as players return from injury next week against San Francisco; a list that includes starting safety Taylor Rapp and rookie standout Ernest Jones. With just the 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals, and Kansas City Chiefs left standing, it may not be such a ridiculous statement to say that the Rams now have the best remaining defense in the playoffs.

Special teams play has completely flipped the script

A part from a missed field goal from Matt Gay, the special teams for the Rams has continued to be a bright spot after a terrible start to the season. Johnny Hekker has put together his best string of games of the season and is back to his All-Pro form. He nearly pinned the Buccaneers at the one yard line if not for a missed opportunity by Ben Skowronek. His next punt was bounced out-of-bounds at the five yard line and set up awful field position for Brady and company.

The return game may have been even more impressive. Brandon Powell continues to make a name for himself as one of the leagues premier punt returners with returns of 21 and 33 yards that gave the offense a short field to work with.

The best moment for the special teams was of course Gay’s game winning field goal. With a militant crowd of Buccaneer fans screaming at their loudest, a fan base that used to cheer for him, against the team that drafted him, Gay’s game-sealing 30 yard field goal attempt was true.

The special teams was one of the worst units for the Rams at the beginning of the season, but they have now become one of their deadliest weapons.

What did you learn in Rams exciting victory in the divisional round of the playoffs? Let’s discuss in the comments below!