Matthew Stafford finally has his first playoff victory. Now comes the tough part

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For a dozen years, Matthew Stafford watched the NFL’s playoff carnival go off either without him, or with his role limited to bit player.

He threw for 49,995 regular-season yards and 282 touchdowns for the Detroit Lions but had virtually nothing tangible (other than a lot of money, of course) to show for it. Three meager wild-card appearances. Three losses by an average of 13.7 points.

There was lots of couch time watching not just great quarterbacks play in, and win, big games, but even guys without his talent. John Wolford won a playoff game since Stafford entered the league in 2009. So did Case Keenum, Tim Tebow, T.J. Yates and Matt Schaub. At some point, anything counts.

With his prime withering away and another rebuild set to begin in Detroit, he begged his way out of that forlorn franchise and to Los Angeles, where with the Rams he hoped to finally join the fray for real.

Monday was step one: Stafford finally shook off the label of having never won a playoff game courtesy of a lopsided 34-11 victory over Arizona.

The result was as much about the Rams' defense and the Cardinals' failures – namely a brutal first half by quarterback Kyler Murray – as anything Stafford did, but so what? A victory is a victory.

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 17: Matthew Stafford #9 of the Los Angeles Rams reacts at the line of scrimmage against the Arizona Cardinals during the third quarter in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at SoFi Stadium on January 17, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Matthew Stafford threw for two touchdowns and ran for another as the Rams dominated the Cardinals on Monday night. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

“I’m just excited for the team to get a win,” Stafford said. “... It feels great.”

Stafford will gladly take 13-for-17 for 202 yards and two touchdowns, plus another score via quarterback sneak, when it’s wrapped in a victory. The game plan was to win. The Rams did it mostly by running the ball. It’s all good.

“I thought when we did throw the ball, Matthew was terrific,” head coach Sean McVay said.

Stafford certainly didn’t care.

“Happy to get one,” he said. “Looking for more.”

That’s where it starts to get tough.

Up next is a trip Sunday to Tampa Bay to play Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. Win there and there’s a good chance Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay awaits. And that’s just to get to the Super Bowl.

“It's just the next step in the journey,” Stafford said. “[Brady is] an outstanding player, he’s been doing it for a long, long time. They have a great football team. I’m not playing against [Brady], one on one, but I understand he’s a great player and he’s going to get his team into the end zone. So I have to do my part.”

The "Super" wild-card weekend wasn’t worth much – just two of the six games were decided by one score and the average margin of victory was 17.2. What’s left, though, is no joke. Saturday features San Francisco at Green Bay and Cincinnati at Tennessee. Sunday is the main event, Rams at Bucs, Buffalo at Kansas City. This is when legends are made and Hall of Fames are earned, the best of the best.

That means Stafford will need to be one of them. This is what he wanted. This is what he always wanted. Stafford doesn’t make much noise off the field, he’s rarely on social media and mostly keeps to his family (four kids).

The competitiveness has always been there. He was a Texas high school legend who chose to head to Georgia and take on the SEC. As the No. 1 overall draft pick, he vowed to change the long-standing misfortunes of the Lions.

He wasn’t always successful, but he played hurt, he played hard, he cared. It wasn’t all the organization. Stafford could have been better, of course. But a player of his caliber should have broken through long ago.

Now is when he can prove it. Odell Beckham Jr. has returned to form (both catching a touchdown and throwing for 40 yards Monday). Cooper Kupp had a quiet night by his standards (5-61, one touchdown) but he’ll be a handful against the Bucs. Sony Michel and Cam Akers combined for 113 yards rushing. The defense held the Cards to 0-for-9 on third down and just 3.4 yards per play.

“What a team win,” Stafford said. “Our defense played outstanding. Our special teams had huge plays to set up our defense for scores. Our offense did enough to put enough points on the board to win it. Just proud to be a part of this team.”

They’ll need it all in Tampa. “We’re going to need all guns on deck,” linebacker Von Miller said.

Stafford will be seeking playoff victory No. 2. Brady is looking for playoff victory No. 36 en route to Super Bowl No. 8. That's fine. This is what he has been working for and dreaming of for a long, long time.

“[The media] can stop asking about [first playoff victory],” McVay said. “Good to get that out of the way. He’s our leader. We wouldn’t be here without him.”

“Here” is the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. Uncharted territory for Stafford. What he can do now, and how far he can lead these Rams, will help define everything.

At least, at last, the chance is here.

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