Former Lions QB Matthew Stafford leads Rams to Super Bowl, drops 49ers

Detroit News

Inglewood, Calif. — On the one-year anniversary of the trade that sent Matthew Stafford from the Lions to the Los Angeles Rams, the former Detroit quaterback punched his ticket to the Super Bowl.

Travin Howard made a game-sealing interception with 1:09 to play, and Stafford and the Rams rallied from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to secure a spot to play for the NFL championship at their home stadium in two weeks with a thrilling 20-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday night.

Stafford threw for 337 yards and two touchdowns in winning his third consecutive playoff game. He was winless in the playoffs (0-3) with Detroit.

“You can’t write the story any better,” Stafford said. “I’m at a loss for words. I’m just having a blast playing ball with these guys and, shoot, we’ve got one more at the home stadium. Let’s get it done.”

Cooper Kupp caught two touchdown passes from Stafford for the star-studded Rams (15-5), who began the fourth quarter down 17-7 after wasting a multitude of scoring opportunities.

But after Kupp’s second TD catch and a tying field goal on a drive extended by Jaquiski Tartt’s brutal dropped interception, the Rams drove for Matt Gay’s go-ahead, 30-yard field goal with 1:46 to play.

Los Angeles’ defense then won it when Aaron Donald got hold of Jimmy Garoppolo and forced him to fling a pass toward JaMycal Hasty. The ball caromed high in the air off Hasty’s hands and came straight down to Howard — and the fourth-year pro didn’t miss it.

“I’ve got total trust and confidence in that defense, man,” said Stafford, the 13-year veteran, drafted with the first pick by the Lions in 2009. “They’ve been unbelievable all year. Way to freakin’ ice the game. I loved it.”

Los Angeles will welcome the Cincinnati Bengals for Super Bowl LVI in Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s multibillion-dollar SoFi Stadium.

After 54 consecutive Super Bowls without an NFL team playing in its home stadium, the Rams are the second team to do it in two seasons after Tampa Bay broke the streak last year.

Kupp finished with 11 catches for 142 yards in his latest spectacular game, while Odell Beckham Jr. advanced to his first Super Bowl with yet another strong performance, making nine catches for 113 yards.

The Rams won their second conference title in the past four years under coach Sean McVay and moved one step from the franchise’s second championship in the Super Bowl era.

Perhaps even more impressively, Los Angeles finally snapped a six-game losing streak against its San Francisco archrivals, who secured their playoff berth with an overtime comeback victory in Inglewood just three weeks ago.

“I think we knew what a great team this was, but our guys genuinely knew that what happened in the previous six games had nothing to do with what was going to happen when we kicked this one off,” McVay said.

The Rams have only won twice when trailing by double digits in the second half during McVay’s half-decade in charge — and both victories were in conference championship games.

Deebo Samuel and George Kittle caught touchdown passes from Garoppolo, who passed for 232 yards in a heartbreaker for the 49ers (12-8). While San Francisco’s defense faltered late, coach Kyle Shanahan also punted twice from the Rams’ half of the field and a third time from the 50, and that caution likely ended up costing the Niners.

San Francisco also will lament its late-game execution, but no mistake was bigger than the dropped interception by Tartt, who could have put the Rams in dire straits moments after McVay wasted his final timeout on a failed challenge early in the fourth quarter.

In front of a crowd packed with fans of both California clubs, San Francisco held a 10-7 halftime lead after a litany of missed opportunities by Los Angeles.

The Rams got to the San Francisco 3 on their second drive, but K’Waun Williams alertly tipped an end zone pass to Jimmie Ward for a long interception return. The pick was Stafford’s first of the playoffs, but his fifth in three games against the Niners.

Los Angeles shook it off, got a defensive stop and made an 18-play, 97-yard drive consuming more than 91/2 minutes. Kupp capped it with his 16-yard TD catch in the back of the end zone.

But the Niners answered with yet another moment of brilliance of Samuel, who caught an inside screen pass and rampaged through the Los Angeles defense. The All-Pro dived to the pylon for his first career postseason scoring catch.

The Rams’ mistakes multiplied: Kupp and rookie Ben Skowronek dropped potential scoring passes on LA’s next drive, which ended with a missed 54-yard field goal by Gay.

Samuel shook off a massive, clean hit from Rams safety Nick Scott on San Francisco’s drive ending in Robbie Gould’s 38-yard field goal at the halftime gun for a 10-7 lead.

San Francisco’s defense stopped the Rams on downs near midfield in the third quarter, and Garoppolo hit Kittle for his second TD pass moments later. Los Angeles kept it close with a gritty drive ending in Kupp’s 11-yard TD catch early in the fourth quarter.

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