Inglewood, Calif. — One drive for the ultimate prize. One throw to win it all.
It’s what Matthew Stafford craved all those years in Detroit, to prevail in the thickest pressure. And now here he was, as thick as it gets, trailing in the Super Bowl, 79 yards from the end zone, six minutes left. Who knows, maybe those comebacks — large and small — with the Lions prepared him for this. Or maybe he’d been preparing his whole life.
In a final drive for the ages, Stafford pulled off his greatest comeback and delivered an ending perhaps only he could foresee. He fired a 1-yard touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp with 1:25 left, and the Rams held on to beat the Bengals 23-20 in Super Bowl LVI Sunday night.
All the Rams’ stars came out, from the unstoppable Kupp (named the MVP) to defensive force Aaron Donald, who led a Los Angeles charge that sacked Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow seven times. This was a great team before Stafford arrived but he tied it together, leading the Rams on a 15-play march to win it, hitting clutch throws and drawing key interference penalties.
For 12 years with the Lions, he flashed the ability to do this, given the chance. He led 31 fourth-quarter comebacks but none in the playoffs. It was mostly the sadsack franchise’s fault but Stafford had to know for sure, which is why he asked to be traded, and why he wanted to come to play for Sean McVay, an offensive guru. I’m not aware of Stafford ever playing for an offensive guru in Detroit.
Released from the Lions’ grip, Stafford won it all in his first chance, and great for him. Lots of Lions fans went along for the ride. The Lions themselves have nothing to celebrate, but they should appreciate what they had, and try again to figure out how they botched their chances.
It was a tug-of-war type of game, another classic in a wild NFL postseason. It was Stafford in his natural form, erratic at times with two interceptions, always eager to take another shot. He had called his trade a request a year ago “the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.” Soon to be 34, his career clock was ticking.
After donning his World Champs cap, and after rolling in the confetti with his wife, Kelly, and their four daughters, Stafford sat amid the media crush surrounded by his family. I asked him if there was a time in Detroit when he doubted this moment would ever come, there or anywhere. Why keep pushing?
“Because I love playing this game,” Stafford said. “I love playing this game for the competition, for the relationships, for the hard times, for the good times, all off it. This game can teach you so much as people, coming together for one goal. For 12 years, that goal wasn’t reached and it tore me up inside. But I knew I could keep playing and try to find a way.”
Long way from Detroit
Find a way. How many times after another excruciating loss did Stafford say the Lions just needed to find a way; he had to be better, they had to be better. It was a long way from there to here, from Detroit to Los Angeles, from a guy who endured broken bones and broken seasons to a symbol of durability and determination. It’s a long way from Detroit to the Super Bowl, a journey the Lions have never taken, in case you hadn’t heard.
Stafford made it all the way, and we’ve spent weeks trying to figure out what it means. Was Stafford’s appearance in Super Bowl LVI further condemnation of the Lions’ historic ineptitude? Sure. But it was more than that.
Stafford showed you can get out with your reputation and talent intact if you want it badly enough. He left not embittered but emboldened, and his humility gave people reasons to keep cheering for him.
“It was amazing,” Stafford said of Detroit fans. “There’s no reason for them to cheer for me anymore and the fact they did, was just a true testament to who they are as people and who they are as fans. They live and die with their players, and to have that support all the way across the country means the world to me and my family. They helped us through a bunch of tough times and they’re a huge reason I’m sitting here today.”
Losing hardened him more than we probably realized, because he almost never discussed it deeply. The criticism probably toughened him too.
Of course it helps to have superior players around him, and the Rams have multiple stars on defense — Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Von Miller — and an incredible talent at receiver. Kupp deserved the MVP with eight catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns. In fact, this game proved you can come from anywhere and win a championship. Kupp came from Eastern Washington. Stafford came from Detroit, no snark intended.
He completed 26 of 40 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns, and on the winning drive, he hit Kupp four times. Seemingly stopped on third down at the Bengals’ 8 with less than two minutes left, the Rams got new life on a defensive holding penalty against Logan Wilson.
The Bengals had led 20-13 with several chances to expand it. They were shutting down the Rams’ running game and harassing Stafford, and then came the final drive. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson was asked why they stopped getting pressure on Stafford at the end.
“He was doing a good job getting to his reads quickly, executing good throws,” Hendrickson said. “I mean, he’s a talented, elite quarterback.”
He’s always been talented, but to be elite, you have to win in the playoffs. With a chance to demand his rightful reward, Stafford was his modest self, mentioning every key Rams player, saying he just hopped aboard and followed their leads.
“That last drive was a special drive, one I’ll never forget, so many great plays by so many great players,” Stafford said. “Just so happy to get it done, I’m speechless. It’s not me, it’s not any individual, we’re a group, we’re a team.”
Ah, there it is, the obvious but unspoken difference between the past and present. When one area stumbles, someone else picks it up. Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. left late in the first half with a left knee injury, and from that moment, the Rams’ offense went from gliding to idling. Shortly after another celebrated Detroit export, Eminem, performed at halftime, the Bengals tried to steal the show. On the first play of the third quarter, Burrow fired a 75-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins and Cincinnati was on top 17-13.
Controversy accompanied it, as Higgins made contact with Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey’s facemask. No penalty, no foul. On the next possession, Stafford threw his second interception, bouncing a pass off the hands of Ben Skowronek. Stop me if you’re heard this before — it wasn’t totally Stafford’s fault, but it was a risky throw.
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At that point, you had to wonder if Stafford had completely escaped the clutches of Lions lousy luck. Later, he was hit and twisted his left ankle, and limped off. He was re-taped and reentered, with one more quarter to try to erase the Bengals’ 20-16 lead.
Stafford was brought to L.A. for this reason. After all, Jared Goff led the Rams this far only to lose in the Super Bowl. Some Lions fans — I’d say about 75% — celebrate the vindication of a guy who always kept fighting. Perhaps you’ve seen the Detroit Rams shirts and watched the social-media celebrations by Lions fans when Stafford made clutch throws in the NFC Championship Game.
Detroit comedian-actor and avowed Lions fan Keegan-Michael Key summed it up nicely on the “Jimmy Kimmel Show” when he said, “I love Matt so much, because we’re at least now Super Bowl adjacent, right?”
Adjacent, sure, maybe a little jealous. There has been a cathartic release from former Lions teammates who always believed in their quarterback. Stafford made mistakes here but was never the overriding problem, providing just enough hope for the team to keep pinning more on him.
The trade was necessary pain for the Lions, as they picked up two first-round picks and Goff in a deal universally branded as win-win for both franchises. But did anyone really expect it to wind up here?
Even the Super Bowl opponent added to the Lions misery. The Bengals were among the saddest franchises, the only one with a longer playoff winning drought than the Lions. Cincinnati got here the way Detroit once dreamed it could. After going 2-14 two years ago, the Bengals plucked Burrow with the No. 1 pick and he’s proven to be a swashbuckling star. After going 0-16 in 2008, the Lions plucked Stafford at No. 1, enamored with his swash-buckling tendencies.
Is it distressing Stafford did something he couldn’t do in Detroit? Or is it uplifting that one of their own made it out, after stars like Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson couldn’t? If anything, it’s fitting, because the Lions were forced yet again to reexamine their failings. In a way, so was Stafford, whose errors always were amplified in Detroit.
He still led the league in interceptions with the Rams. But with an array of stars on defense and the prolific Kupp, Stafford shook off a midseason slump and got his chance. It brought him all the way here, to a $5-billion stadium not far from Hollywood, to the football world’s biggest stage. To a frantic, fantastic finish and a final Stafford flourish that was a long, long time in the making.