A season of firsts continues for Matthew Stafford.
For the last 12 years, when the NFL playoffs moved to divisional-round games, Stafford was relegated to interested observer. The Rams quarterback rooted for friends and former Detroit Lions teammates on teams trying to advance to NFC or AFC championship games and beyond.
“I’ve made bunch of relationships in this business,” Stafford said Wednesday during a video conference with reporters. “So, I’m always paying attention no matter what. Just trying to pull for the guys I know.”
On Sunday, for the first time since he was selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, Stafford will be a participant, not a fan, for an NFC divisional-round game when the Rams play the defending Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
Stafford earned the opportunity by leading the Rams to a 34-11 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in a wild-card game at SoFi Stadium. It was Stafford’s first playoff win after losing three wild-card games with the Lions.
Now a Rams team built with a mandate to play in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium has a chance to take another step toward that goal.
“I’m hoping that we continue to earn more opportunities,” Stafford said, adding, “I’m enjoying every moment of it and preparing myself to play as a good as I possibly can to help us try to keep it going.”
The pressure will be on Stafford on Sunday in a game that pits him in a postseason duel against Tom Brady, the most successful quarterback in NFL history.
Stafford has a 1-3 record in the playoffs. Brady, a seven-time Super Bowl champion, is 35-11.
This season, the Buccaneers led the NFL in passing and were second in scoring.
“The biggest thing about going against a guy like Tom is just knowing his consistency and his ability to get his team in the end zone,” Stafford said. “He’s done a great job throughout his career, both in New England and Tampa, scoring points — and doing it kind of every which way is called upon.
“As an offense, we need to do the same.”
Stafford outdueled Brady in September during the Rams’ 34-24 victory over the Buccaneers at SoFi Stadium.
Stafford completed 27 of 38 passes for 343 yards and four touchdowns. Brady was 41 of 55 for 432 yards and a touchdown.
Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said Stafford has not changed since the first game.
“They’re running the ball a lot better and more of it, but I think Matt is playing fantastic,” Arians said Wednesday during a conference call with Rams beat reporters. “I don’t see much different. He was playing great in that game too.”
Stafford was efficient Monday night against the Cardinals, completing 13 of 17 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns. More importantly, he did not commit a turnover for the first time in five games.
His 17 attempts were the fewest of his career in a game that he did not leave because of injury.
“I love throwing the ball, no doubt, but I love it when I’m handing off and our guys are getting 10, 12 [yards] a pop, too,” he said. “At this point, I’ll take ‘em any way we can get ‘em.”
During the regular season, Stafford passed for 41 touchdowns, with 17 interceptions that tied him for the most in the league.
Playing in the Rams offense required a psychological change from attempting to do everything for the Lions.
“I just got to go play within myself within this offense as well as I possibly can,” he said. “I tried to do that on Monday night. I felt like the ball was going to the right place. I got to continue to try and push myself to be that way.”
Coach Sean McVay said throughout the season that he did not want Stafford to ever lose his aggressiveness.
Is there a sense that Stafford, this deep in the playoffs, cannot take as many shots down the field as he took during the season?
“It’s situational,” McVay said Wednesday. “We talk about it all the time: Shot called doesn’t necessarily mean shot taken. But you want to be aggressive but smart with the way you go compete.”
Rams linebacker Von Miller played on a Denver Broncos team that won Super Bowl 50 with Hall of Famer Peyton Manning at quarterback.
The pressure was on Manning, but “we knew we couldn’t just go in there and just rely on Peyton Manning to just save the day like he normally does and like he did his whole entire career,” Miller said.
Stafford and Manning are “two totally different quarterbacks,” Miller said.
“But I think it’s the same,” he said. “We’re not just relying on Matthew Stafford to go out there and save the day.
“Although all the pressure is always going to be on the quarterback … I feel like as a team we all feel like we have to do our part. We all feel like we got to do more to win a Super Bowl.”
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who suffered knee and ankle injures against the Cardinals, has not been ruled out for Sunday’s game but he would not have practiced Wednesday, said McVay, who put his team through a walk-through. “He’s like Gumby,” McVay said. … Safety Taylor Rapp remains in concussion protocol. … Linebacker Ernest Jones, who suffered an ankle injury on Dec. 26 against the Minnesota Vikings, will return to practice so that he can be evaluated for a possible return to the roster, McVay said. … With offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell, defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and running backs coach Thomas Brown interviewing for head coach positions, McVay said he was not concerned that it would distract them from the job at hand. “I’m not worried about it taking from our focus on the Bucs,” he said.