Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams are going to the Super Bowl after overcoming a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter against their long standing kryptonite. The San Francisco 49ers fell to LA 20-17 in the NFC Championship game—sending not only themselves to the couch to watch their division rival compete for a Lombardi trophy, but also the thousands of 49ers fans in attendance at SoFi Stadium.
It took a complete effort by the Rams players to overcome some difficulties on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. After losing to the 49ers six times in a row, LA walks away with the most important victory. The Rams will now host the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl in their own home—but before I get too ahead of myself, here are the things I learned in Rams NFC Championship win.
The magic of SoFi Stadium
There was plenty of speculation going into Sunday’s matchup about which team actually had home field advantage. In Week 18, San Francisco fans adorned the chairs of SoFi Stadium in masses—flooding Stan Kroenke's temple with red and gold and forcing Stafford to go to the silent count in his own home. Despite best efforts to limit ticket sales to Rams fans, including restricting sales to Los Angeles residents, the 49ers faithful again made a staggering effort to make SoFi their home during the NFC Championship Game, but they forgot one thing—this is Rams house.
WHOSE HOUSE?!— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) January 31, 2022
The fans for the 49ers may have done enough to at least skew the sea of blue—but without a doubt were not the loudest of the two. With just 6:45 left in regulation and the game tied, the Rams fans in attendance had the stadium rocking on second-and-10. As the the play clock winded down, Garoppolo frantically clapped his hand in an effort to get the ball snapped, but it never came. The ear-splitting roar from the crowd forced a delay-of-game penalty that was the catalyst to a Rams victory.
Though SoFi is one of the greatest architectural feats in recent memory, it is only made magical by those in attendance. The Rams community showed up big on Sunday and gave their team the advantage they needed to secure a trip to the Super Bowl.
Next-man up mentality
For the first three quarters of the NFC Championship, the Rams stars looked overmatched. Stafford’s early interception in the end zone took points away from the board, the Rams defensive line could not get any pressure on Jimmy Garoppolo, and Kupp’s dropped pass was just icing on the cake. It was the Rams reserves, the back-ups, the late-round draft picks that were instrumental in turning things around for LA as they went into the fourth quarter 10 points down.
One of the biggest story lines just might be what Kendall Blanton, the last tight end standing, was able to do in relief of an injured Tyler Higbee. His biggest highlight of the day was a trick play that featured a flea-flicker turned screen. The 20 yard gain at the end of the third quarter was a huge shift in momentum that got the fans back into the action.
Blanton finished the game with five catches for 57 yards in a performance that was by far his best of the season. He also helped convert a third-and-1 on the game-winning drive that set up Matt Gay’s field goal.
(3:23) “You look at Kendall Blanton,” McVay explained in the press conference following the game, “you lose Tyler Higbee, such an instrumental part of our offense, and he stepped in... all hands on deck—everybody was ready to go... I’m so proud of this group.”
The next man-up mentality that has defined the Rams this season was no better exemplified on the 49ers final drive of the game. With the game on the line and Jimmy Garoppolo exactly where the LA defense wanted him, Aaron Donald fought through his defender to have an opportunity to secure LA’s first sack of the night. Instead, as he attempted to swing the 49ers QB to the ground, the ball left Garoppolo’s hand on a shovel pass that was tipped by Brandon Aiyuk and fell into the arms of Travin Howard. Howard, who was thrust into action because of an injury to Ernest Jones late in the season, sent his team to the Super Bowl with his interception.
Los Angeles has been considered to be a team whose play is predicated by its stars, but its the efforts from the less known that has helped elevate the team when they needed it the most.
Aaron Donald appreciation post
Garoppolo will walk away from the game with a mostly clean jersey in large part to a terrific outing by his offensive line. He was only hit three times—twice by Donald and once by Von Miller, and was not sacked a single time. Despite some injury issues going into the game for the 49ers offensive line, they held their own against one of the best defensive lines in the league for three and a half quarters.
Donald became a leader of the likes we have not seen before from the eight year veteran. After watching his team give up big play after big play, including touchdowns to Deebo Samuel and George Kittle, the seven-time all pro and reigning defensive player of the year grabbed his men on the sideline and asked the simple question—how bad do you want it?
(35:15) “I don’t remember exact words... kind of just telling us how bad we want it?” Ramsey recalled, “We [are] right here, we gotta do more, we gotta give a little bit extra, we gotta give more. We just kind of went out there and did that really,”
His defense did not surrender a single point from then on. We know Donald the game-wrecker, the all-pro, the most dominant player in football, but on Sunday we got a glimpse of Aaron Donald the leader of the Rams. While his play on the field is usually what earns his teams wins, it cannot be understated what his leadership meant on one of the biggest stages in the NFL.
Matthew Stafford officially rewrites his legacy
It was exactly one year on Sunday that General Manager Les Snead and Head Coach Sean McVay made what now might be considered one of the greatest trades of all time. The Stafford nay-sayers are quiet today. Their near-silent murmurs of excuses go unnoticed by those with louder voices. To those that said he could not win in the big games because of an 0-3 record in the playoffs with the Detroit Lions, to those who said he would fold under the pressure that he had never faced before—I simply say this: I think we ain’t done yet.
"Stafford won this game, Stafford won the Bucs game, Stafford won the Cardinals game. I think we're done wondering if Stafford can win a big game.— Good Morning Football (@gmfb) January 31, 2022
Now, can he join @drewbrees and @AaronRodgers12 with a Super Bowl?"
- @PSchrags on Matthew Stafford winning the NFC Championship pic.twitter.com/JAfDkX6QII
Stafford has been one of the most criticized quarterbacks of the season and yet had led his team to a division championship in the hardest division in football and finished the regular season with 41 touchdowns, a 67.2% completion percentage, and 4,886 yards through the air. Despite his accolades, he was not named to the Pro Bowl in favor of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray and had little discussion in the MVP conversation.
The 13-year quarterback finished Sunday’s game with 337 yards passing, two touchdown passes to Cooper Kupp, and a passer rating of 96.2. Against the best defense left in the playoffs he managed to help convert 11 of 18 third down attempts and may have had an even better stat line if not for dropped passes by Ben Skowronek and Kupp.
Stafford is just one win away from adding Super Bowl Champion to his already impressive resume. One more win and suddenly the quarterback that was lost in the wastelands of Detroit is being talked in the same sentence with some of the NFL’s greatest. This is why you mortgage you future on a proven talent, this is why you go all in—this is how you win championships.
What did you learn in the Rams NFC Championship victory? Let’s discuss in the comments!