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Once again the Los Angeles Rams repeatedly stepped on rakes. Once again they managed to blow a 17-point halftime lead and once again turnovers consumed them. The difference was this time instead of the Rams having to save Matthew Stafford from himself, he saved them.

After the Bucs inexplicably tied the game 27-27, Stafford expertly led the Rams down the field culminating on a 46-yard pass to set up the spike and the game-winning Matt Gay field goal with four seconds left. Matt Gay redeemed himself after missing from 49 yards and bailed out the Rams after four ridiculous fumbles and a rare instance of Jalen Ramsey getting roasted Gilbert Gottfried style. Now the Rams are in the NFC Championship for the second time in Sean McVay’s career.

Matthew Stafford (28/38, 366 yards, 2 TDS, 1 rushing TD) was nothing short of extraordinary. He completed passes to seven different receivers. He hit Cooper Kupp (9 catches, 183 yards, 1 TD) for a 70-yard TD which is now the longest Rams postseason TD since Isaac Bruce’s TD in Super Bowl XXXIV. When the Rams had a 20-3 halftime lead, they did so with a running game that never got going. Odell Beckham Jr. had a nice day with six catches for 69 yards and had both toe-tapping grabs and his trademark one-handers.

The problem offensively was that Cam Akers fumbled the ball twice. Once to end the half and stop the Rams from putting the game away early and again following the Bucs scoring drive following Kupp’s own disastrous fumble. Brian Allen also snapped too early and allowed the Bucs to recover. Through all the mistakes and the glass cases of emotion, Stafford never spiraled. It’s clear that as ugly as the losses in November, the wins in December, and the gut-punch in week 18 were, Stafford grew from them. He now has two postseason wins and was spectacular in both of them.

Last year in round two, Aaron Donald could be seen crying on the sideline. He was wounded and saw the Packers run wild on them like Hulkamania and fans wondered if he’d ever win a title.  A year later he dominated a battered Bucs line. He had one sack, 6 tackles, a deflected pass, and 6 hits on Tom Brady. The Rams recorded three sacks, one by Leonard Floyd and the other a strip-sack by Von Miller.

Through three quarters the Rams beat down the Bucs. Nick Scott picked off Brady and it took until the fourth quarter before Brady got the offense going. It’s baffling that the Bucs were let back in the game. Eric Weddle nearly cost the Rams dearly for a late hit but thanks to an obscure rule, the Rams weren’t called for a PI. After talking trash before the game, Ramsey was flat out embarrassed multiple times in the second half and Troy Reeder missed tackles that allowed Leonard Fournette to morph into Playoff Lenny. The defense once again wilted as they did in week 18, but, fortunately, they’ll get reinforcements in the form of Taylor Rapp, Ernest Jones, and Sebastian Joseph Day.

Aside from Matt Gay having his third miss of the season, the special teams were great. Brandon Powell had 52 return yards, Johnny Hekker once again reminded everyone why they kept him, and after a mistake, Ben Skowronek had two big tackles. As McVay said afterward, it was “a very interesting game” but one that revealed a lot about the Rams, both good and for ill.

Joe Noteboom proved he’s a worthy successor to Andrew Whitworth and while Cam Akers is a medical marvel he still needs work, and there is the potential of Darrell Henderson returning to at least keep him from having to run every down especially when Sony can’t get going.

Again though, the biggest lesson came in the form of Matthew Stafford who no longer has fans remarking that he looks shook or lacks confidence. He’s capable of creating meaningful game-winning drives on the biggest of stages.

All that said, next week is the biggest stage yet. The Niners are a team the Rams could’ve saved Dallas and Green Bay from seeing. They haven’t beaten them in three years and week 18 was a sea of red. Turnovers and idiotic mistakes can be overcome against a hobbled defending champion but not against the Niners. The Rams have lived it. To paraphrase Helen Parr, the Niners aren’t like those villains on the Saturday morning cartoons. They will not show restraint, they will kill you. The Rams caused fans and themselves to have a baker’s dozen heart attacks and got out of Tampa averting a 311 level beautiful disaster. Now they have a chance to finally slay the Shanahan dragon. To do so, they need more than for Matthew Stafford to be perfect, they need every player to be flawless.

Los Angeles Rams Kicker Matt Gay. Photo Credit: Brevin Townsell | LA Rams

Los Angeles Rams Kicker Matt Gay. Photo Credit: Brevin Townsell | LA Rams

Chauncey Telese

Author Chauncey Telese

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