With the game inexplicably tied and less than a minute remaining in regulation, Stafford faced a tall task: Find a way to lead the Los Angeles Rams into field goal range before the end of the fourth quarter. The quarterback who'd spent most of his career struggling to lead the Detroit Lions to relevance began the drive by taking a sack, then immediately scored a massive victory with two completions to his most reliable target, Cooper Kupp. The latter finished the job.
After a 44-yard strike down the middle of the field to Kupp, all Stafford had to do was spike the ball to stop the clock with enough time left for Matt Gay to kick the game-winning field goal. As the attempt split the uprights, Stafford began to process reality: He'd just led the Rams to a thrilling road playoff victory, dethroning the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"That's a resilient team," Stafford told NBC's Michele Tafoya after the game. "I got great playmakers on the outside. I tried to run on first down in two-man, bad idea. It was just great plays by Cooper there. Great job by the O-line, they tried to bring everybody on the last one. Not a good recipe, so glad we hit it."
It was only appropriate that Stafford found his breakfast club mate Kupp to put the Rams in position to win. Anything less would have felt like a letdown in such a big moment.
Stafford knew he could trust Kupp in the biggest moment of their first year together with the Rams.
"Spent a lot of time with the guy, know what he's all about, as does everybody on our team," Stafford said. "Man, he's the heart and soul of this offense. What he's able to do down in and down out, whether it's in the pass game or run game. He's an unbelievable competitor. That's a love-of-the-game route. He's gets that ball … zero times out of 100, and they brought everybody and he was able to make a play."
Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is known to be aggressive in moments of massive importance, and he did not defer on first-and-10 with 28 seconds to play. Bowles dialed up a blitz, sending six rushers after Stafford with a seventh -- linebacker Lavonte David -- lingering near the line of scrimmage. With the rush bearing down on Stafford, the 33-year-old veteran let it fly, sending an arcing pass over the head of safety Antoine Winfield Jr. into the arms of Kupp, who caught the ball just inside the Tampa Bay 20 before being brought down at the 12.
Stafford sprinted down the field, directing the offense to line up in time to spike the ball. Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, meanwhile, was left only to wonder what had just happened at Raymond James Stadium.
"Some guys didn't blitz," Arians said. "I don't know if we didn't get the call but it was an all-out blitz. We should've got a ton of pressure."
Instead of getting a ton of pressure, the Buccaneers got none according to Next Gen Stats. As Tampa Bay's defense desperately sprinted after Stafford, the quarterback quickly released an all-or-nothing pass that produced everything for the Rams.
A completion probability of just 25.9% didn't matter to Stafford and Kupp, who overcame the percentages to put the Rams in position to win, adding 28.4% to their win probability with the connection.
"It felt like it hung up there forever," Kupp said. "Matthew did a great job just buying time. Putting the ball up, letting me run underneath it. I'm not sure how he knew exactly where I was going to end up so quickly, but just a great job of hitting me in stride."
With the ball advanced to Tampa Bay's 12, the Buccaneers' chances of repeating evaporated with each second that passed between Stafford's spike and Gay's kick. Gay's successful 30-yard attempt redeemed him for an earlier 47-yard miss, ended the Buccaneers' season and left David struggling to come up with an explanation for the lapse.
"It's an unfortunate situation, some people got the (defensive play) call, some didn't," David said, via ABC Action News' Kyle Burger. "It just sucks to lose in that manner."
That manner -- and the moments that preceded it -- never would have arrived had Tampa Bay not mounted a furious, unlikely comeback to tie the game at 27 with 0:42 left. Los Angeles had every reason in the world to fold, and instead, its quarterback -- whom the Rams acquired via a blockbuster offseason trade for moments exactly like this -- lifted the entire team off the mat long enough to land one final knockout punch.
"He certainly delivered in a big way today," Rams coach Sean McVay said. "Whether it's why you go get him? Always had a lot of confidence in Matthew. That never wavered. It never wavered the confidence he had in himself, the teammates, the coaches. He had a look in his eye.
"What an awesome thing it was to see him clock that. And he basically knew, all right Matt's gonna come in and finish this thing off. Matthew did a great job, he's our leader, love him. What a great competitor and what an outstanding job he did on a huge stage today against the reigning world champs."