Niyo: Stafford holds up his end of deal, delivers Rams to Super Bowl

Detroit News

They were all in Cabo San Lucas a year ago, plotting a way to get here.

And once they were sure they’d found it, having finalized a blockbuster trade that would send shockwaves throughout the NFL, Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay and his fiancée, Veronika Khomyn, sat down for a celebratory dinner with Matthew Stafford and his wife, Kelly.

Only miles away in the same Mexican resort town, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, was cursing at his phone and his misfortune, frustrated that a division rival was walking away with the talented quarterback that he, too, had come to covet but couldn’t quite land.

Sunday night, on the one-year anniversary of the trade that reshaped the NFC — if not the entire league, and certainly the team that resides in Detroit —the feelings were eerily similar. The celebrations that carried late into the night undoubtedly were, too.

And in Stafford’s new $5 billion home stadium in Los Angeles, the one-time face of the Lions’ franchise couldn’t help but smile at how it all has worked out.

“I mean, you can’t write this story any better,” a beaming Stafford told Fox’s Erin Andrews in the immediate aftermath of the Rams’ 20-17 comeback win over the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. “I’m at a loss for words. I’m just having a blast playing ball with these guys. And, shoot, we got one more at the home stadium. Let’s get it done.”

One more, indeed, as the Rams advanced to face the surprising Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI right there on that same SoFi Stadium field.

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And for a 13-year NFL veteran who’d never won one playoff game, let alone three, as Stafford has done in leading the Rams’ march through this postseason, a dream scenario is now a reality.

Stafford has tried his best to downplay the role reversal this season has brought, leaving a downtrodden franchise behind in Detroit — one that has just one playoff victory since 1957 — to join a team that seemed primed for a run like this. A team with a star-studded defensive roster, playmaking offensive talent and a hot-shot young head coach in McVay, who was convinced he was only a quarterback away from winning it all.

Stafford may not have proved that definitively Sunday night, throwing an interception early and very nearly tossing the game away late. And now is probably as good a time as any to remember that Jared Goff — the quarterback McVay shipped off to the Lions along with two first-round picks and a third-rounder in the Stafford trade — actually won an NFC championship, too. That was just four years ago, and it came in his second full season as an NFL starter.

So it’s the next step that matters most, and the next win that will validate everything for McVay and the Rams. And for Stafford, who actually will set a record for the most career passing yards (49,995) and touchdown passes (323) by a player making his first Super Bowl appearance.

But the plan does seem to be coming together, doesn’t it? In three playoff wins over Arizona, Tampa Bay and now San Francisco, Stafford has thrown for 905 yards with six touchdowns and one interception, posting a gaudy 115.6 passer rating.

Sunday, he finished the game 31 of 45 for 337 yards and two touchdowns — both to All-Pro receiver Cooper Kupp — as the Rams rallied from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter, the largest comeback ever in a conference championship game.

Stafford, the first ex-Lions quarterback to start in a conference championship game since Earl Morrall a half-century ago, had lost the last 26 games in which he’d trailed by double digits entering the fourth quarter. But he led the Rams on three straight scoring drives in the final quarter against the 49ers, the last a 10-play drive that set up Matt Gay’s go-ahead 30-yard field goal with 1:46 remaining.

“Didn’t start the way we wanted it to, but guys battled,” Stafford said. “Said in the locker room, ‘There’s no way we’re not gonna win this damn game.’ And our guys put our mind to it, came out here and did it. I’m so proud of this group.”

And once they knew they’d done it, after 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo — the one Shanahan was looking to trade for Stafford a year ago — had come unglued on San Francisco’s final possession, tossing a wild underhand interception deep in his own territory to seal his team’s fate, there was Stafford on the sideline bursting with excitement.

He’d said all along he’d just wanted to give himself a chance to play in more meaningful games. And when asked Sunday night how this feeling compares to what he’d felt all those years in Detroit, he couldn’t really say.

“I don’t know that I ever thought about what I would be feeling in this moment,” he shrugged. “I probably just sat there and wished I could be in those games. I’m so happy that I’ve got the opportunity to be in them. And I have an opportunity to be in another one that I’ve always wanted to play in.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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