Inglewood, Calif. — The Lions were determined not to let Matthew Stafford beat them Sunday.
But they still needed Jared Goff to win the game.
And following the sort of Hollywood script that you’d expect from a situation comedy here in Los Angeles, the ending was exactly what you’d expect as Stafford and the Rams outlasted a spirited effort from the Lions to keep them winless this season.
The final score was 28-19 in favor of the home team at SoFi Stadium, and the sequence that sealed the Lions’ fate seemed particularly cruel, from Stafford’s fourth-quarter comeback to Goff’s late interception and another long field goal that clinched it.
Afterward, all Stafford could do was smile and sigh and shrug, while passing along well-meaning compliments to his former team.
“Detroit’s a tough out,” he said. “Always have been, probably always will be. Just happy to get one here.”
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Yet here’s where it gets awkward, of course, Because Stafford’s on the other side of the fence now, and Goff’s the one left to explain how things went wrong again for the Lions, the lone NFL team without a win entering the final week of October.
“We’re a lot better than our record shows,” Goff insisted after this latest crushing defeat. “I do feel we are a lot better than 0-7.”
Maybe he’s right on that count, and there’s little doubt this performance was an impressive response following last week’s collapse against Cincinnati at Ford Field.
But how many times did we hear something similar from Stafford over the last dozen years in Detroit, as coaches came and went but the playoffs never did?
The blockbuster offseason trade that sent Stafford to the Rams in exchange for Goff and a bounty of draft picks was only part of the pregame drama, as even the Lions’ new quarterback had to admit coming into this game, talking about the “sour” end to his time in Los Angeles and the fractured relationship with Rams head coach Sean McVay.
But he was hardly alone in feeling uncomfortable this week, bracing for a game that everyone had circled in dread on the calendar this fall.
Stafford, for his part, was out on the field in shorts in a warmup jacket a couple hours before kickoff Sunday, chatting with David Blough, his former backup in Detroit, as well as receiver Tom Kennedy. Then he stopped for a hug and a conversation with Lions president Rod Wood, who’d been on the receiving end of Stafford’s trade request back in January.
An hour later, Stafford’s wife, Kelly, made her way down to the visitors’ sideline and spent nearly 15 minutes chatting with Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp and her husband, Steve. Eventually, the Rams’ new quarterback came back out for pregame warmups and came over for a quick hug and a few words with Hamp.
“But once the ball was snapped,” Stafford said after the game, “it was time to go play.”
Yet once the kickoff came, it was time for the Lions to freeze out the former face of the franchise.
The Rams won the coin toss and deferred until the second half, meaning Goff and the Lions would take the first possession. But the greedy guests went ahead and took more than that.
Goff hit D’Andre Swift with a screen pass on a perfect call to beat an all-out Rams blitz on third-and-9 from their own 37, and after Swift broke one tackle he was off to the races with a cadre of blockers in front of him. That 63-yard scoring play was the Lions first first-half touchdown since the Week 2 Monday night game at Green Bay.
That’s when the game of Keep Away began, though, as the Lions perfectly executed an onside kick, with Austin Seibert toe-dragging one that bounced into the arms of safety Tracy Walker and sent the Lions sideline into a wild celebration.
That meant the Lions’ offense would take the field with a lead for the first time all season, if you can believe it. And even though the next possession quickly fizzled, with the Lions lining up to punt on fourth-and-7 at midfield, that was merely another mirage. Jack Fox took the long snap, then turned and fired a pass to the left sideline, where gunner Bobby Price hauled it in for a 17-yard gain and a first down. That ultimately led to a field goal to make it a 10-0 lead.
Only then — halfway through the first quarter — did Stafford finally get to play. And once he did, it was easy to see why the Lions’ strategy was the right one.
Stafford led the Rams on three long scoring drives the rest of the first half: 10 plays, 67 yards; 11 plays, 84 yards; and 11 plays, 74 yards. He capped the last two with touchdown passes, the latter for his milestone 300th of his 13-year NFL career.
The Lions bookended those two TDs with a pair of field goals of their own to keep it a narrow 17-16 lead for the Rams at the half.
And the defense stiffened in the third quarter, forcing a three-and-out on the Rams’ opening possession after halftime and then stopping Stafford & Co. on downs late in the third.
In between, the Lions were up to their old tricks again, and Campbell was busy rolling the dice, even if they came up snake eyes. Another fake punt worked to perfection — this time from Detroit’s own 35 — as C.J. Moore took the snap as the upback and raced around left end for 28 yards. But a rushed fourth-and-1 play was stuffed for no gain, and another opportunity was squandered, which once again was the story of this loss.
The Lions couldn’t score a touchdown in five trips to the red zone Sunday. They failed to score 20 points for a sixth consecutive game despite piling up nearly 400 yards offense.
And in the end it was Goff’s ill-advised throw under pressure that proved decisive.
After Stafford led what would turn out to be the 33rd fourth-quarter comeback of his career, capping an eight-play, 90-yard drive with a second touchdown toss to his new favorite receiver, Cooper Kupp, it was Goff’s turn to make something of his homecoming.
And he and the Lions looked like they might, moving methodically down the field on a 15-play, 63-yard drive to the Rams’ 12-yard line. But that’s when Aaron Donald — the player the Lions should’ve drafted back in 2014 at the height of Stafford’s time in Detroit — came barreling through the line to pressure Goff in the pocket.
And that’s when Goff made the mistake he couldn’t, trying to fire a pass to T.J. Hockenson on an overcrowded post route in the end zone just as the quarterback was getting hit. Jalen Ramsey, the Rams’ All-Pro cornerback, made a leaping grab to intercept the wobbly pass with 4:53 left, and the Rams effectively ran out the clock from there, clinching the win with a 47-yard field goal with 58 seconds to play.
“Aaron made a great play,” Goff said. “And Jalen made a great play.”
And those are the sort of game-wrecking defensive players Goff no longer can has to lean on. Instead, it’s Stafford who can laugh and say, as he did in Sunday’s postgame presser, “I mean, that play by Jalen, that’s incredible. Happy to be on a team with a guy like that.”
Happier, still, though to be where he is now. At 6-1 and seemingly bound for the playoffs as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, for starters. But also with this game now finally in the rearview mirror.
“I knew this one was out there, but I wasn’t sitting there thinking about it,” said Stafford, who was smiling as he referenced all the other changes that accompanied the offseason trade from Detroit to Los Angeles. “I had plenty of other stuff to think about, to be honest with you. It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind. …
“Am I happy it’s over with? Yeah. Got a lot of great friends, got a lot of people that I care about that are on that team or from that city. Just glad to have this one over with. Can put the storylines away and just go out play football the rest of the year and enjoy it.”
Easy for him to say.