If the Rams defeat the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in the NFC championship game at SoFi Stadium, it will become another important date of celebration in Rams history.
But Jan. 30 already has significance for this Rams team: It’s the one-year anniversary of the trade that brought quarterback Matthew Stafford to Los Angeles.
On Jan. 30, 2021, two weeks after they lost a divisional-round playoff game at Green Bay, Rams general manager Les Snead and coach Sean McVay sent quarterback Jared Goff, two first-round draft picks and a third-round pick to the Detroit Lions for Stafford, a 12-year veteran with no playoff victories.
The strong-armed Stafford has led the Rams to the NFC championship game for the first time since 2018.
“I don’t necessarily know if you look at it as an all-in, or ‘Hey, this is what we felt like was the best chance to be able to upgrade our football team,'” McVay said Friday during a videoconference with reporters. “And he’s done a great job getting us into this position.”
Stafford, 33, achieved a personal milestone by leading the Rams to playoff victories over the Arizona Cardinals and the defending Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Now he will try again to do what neither he nor Goff was able to do since 2018 — defeat the 49ers.
On Nov. 15, in a 31-10 defeat at Levi’s Stadium, Stafford completed 26 of 41 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown. But he put the Rams in a hole by having two passes intercepted, one that safety Jimmie Ward returned for a touchdown.
In a 27-24 overtime loss in the regular-season finale at SoFi Stadium, he completed 21 of 32 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns. But he also had two passes intercepted, the second ending the game.
Stafford, however, rebounded in the playoffs.
He has not committed a turnover, and he led the Rams to a dramatic victory over the Buccaneers with a game-winning drive in the final 42 seconds.
Stafford completed a 20-yard pass to receiver Cooper Kupp, and then read a blitz and connected with Kupp for a 44-yard completion that set up the decisive field goal.
“Nobody flinched,” Stafford said. “We just stepped up to the plate. … That comes through experience both individually and collectively, as a group, and as a unit.
“So, everybody just kind of drew on their experiences and went out there and made it happen.”
Those were the kinds of plays the Rams anticipated when McVay and Snead sent Goff to Detroit for Stafford.
Stafford began the season with a receiver corps that included starters Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Van Jefferson. In November, days before their first game against the 49ers, they signed star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. for depth, only to see Woods suffers a season-ending knee injury during practice the next day.
Last January, Beckham was a member of the Cleveland Browns when he heard about the Rams’ trade for Stafford.
“It’s funny, I said, ‘Man, they got a good chance to do some pretty incredible things,'” Beckham said Friday.
Beckham never envisioned that a year later he would be catching passes from Stafford. But he had five touchdown catches during the regular season, and he has 10 receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown in the playoffs.
“It’s just been everything I would have hoped for,” he said of playing with Stafford, adding. “We all know his talent, but just as far as leadership, putting in the right position and communication, it’s just been everything, man, it’s been great.”
On Sunday, Stafford will face a 49ers pass rush that has amassed five sacks in each of its last three games — against the Rams, Dallas Cowboys and Packers. Ends Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead each had two sacks in a 13-10 victory over the Packers.
“It doesn’t matter who they’re cycling in there on the defensive line,” Stafford said. “They’re all playing with their ears pinned back and coming after the quarterback and stopping the run along the way.”
Stafford is looking forward to the challenge.
“A lot at stake,” he said. “We know that. Playing a really good opponent that’s playing as good of football as anybody in the NFL right now.
“So, it’ll be a big challenge for us, but we’re excited about the opportunity.”
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who sat out against the Buccaneers because of a knee injury, and linebacker Ernest Jones, who came off injured reserve two weeks ago, will play Sunday, McVay said. Jones is not expected to start. Offensive lineman Joe Noteboom (chest) is listed as doubtful, per the Rams injury report. Receiver Van Jefferson (knee) and safety Taylor Rapp (concussion) are questionable. Running back Cam Akers (rest) did not practice. Backup quarterback John Wolford returned to practice after being absent Thursday due to illness. … Left tackle Trent Williams (ankle) has not practiced all week and is listed as questionable, per the 49ers injury report. Running back Jeffrey Wilson (ankle) was limited and is also listed as questionable.