Matthew Stafford completes journey to mountaintop with Super Bowl LVI victory

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- With two of his daughters on his lap, Matthew Stafford sat at Podium 8 in the bowels of SoFi Stadium, awash in the glow of victory.

His wife, Kelly, crouched behind the podium while holding their third daughter around the waist as she sat on the ledge. For just a moment, Kelly retreated behind the podium, leaving their daughter alone on the ledge.

"That's scary," Stafford said when realizing the situation before telling his daughter to stay put.

Kelly quickly returned to her post while her husband manned his, freed from the burden of chasing a title. After 12 NFL seasons in Detroit and one in Los Angeles, Stafford had finally reached the mountaintop of his profession.

The fear of retiring without a ring was no more. But it didn't come without some very real scares in the final moments of the most important game of his life. Stafford led the Rams on a go-ahead scoring drive to give Los Angeles a 23-20 lead with less than two minutes remaining in Super Bowl LVI, then was forced to watch his defense attempt to preserve it against a Cincinnati Bengals offense that came one yard from midfield in the game's last minute.

The quarterback couldn't bear to witness it.

"To be honest with you, on that last drive, I couldn't watch," Stafford said. "After that fourth-down play, I kind of peeked up. I didn't know it was fourth down, to be honest with you. I was talking to Coop(er Kupp) and he was like 'I didn't know either.' We just, we couldn't watch."

No need to fret, Matthew. Aaron Donald was there to save the day in grand fashion, pressuring Joe Burrow and tossing the Bengals quarterback toward the ground on fourth down as Burrow flung an ill-fated pass that landed harmlessly on the SoFi Stadium turf.

Los Angeles -- home of the all-in, but somewhat recently moved-in Rams -- was officially home to a Super Bowl champion.

Stafford is still new to these parts, having moved west less than a year ago following a blockbuster deal that brought the veteran quarterback and former No. 1 overall pick to the Rams in exchange for Jared Goff and multiple draft picks. The deal meant a new life for Stafford, Kelly and their daughters, who'd only known Michigan for the entirety of their young lives. Matthew and Kelly knew much more, including many years of frustration and disappointment while the quarterback struggled to lift the Lions out of mediocrity.

With his career clock entering its backstretch, Stafford knew it was time for a fresh start. He found a golden opportunity under the sunny skies of Los Angeles, and after a tumultuous season that saw his Rams come together late in the season and complete a run to the Super Bowl, he can soak up the sunshine with a satisfied smile.

"It's probably gonna take some time," Stafford said when asked how he feels after completing a first-year run to a Lombardi Trophy. "I'm gonna have to think about it. I know in the moment I didn't know what to think. I was just a little emotional and so happy to be a world champ. And so happy to be a part of this group. That's the biggest thing. It's not me, it's not any individual on this team. We're a group, we're a team. And to get it done together was so special."

The path to Sunday night started, truly, when Rams coach Sean McVay was asked about the future of Goff in Los Angeles following the Rams' Divisional Round loss to the Green Bay Packers in early 2021. McVay was not bashful about his team needing better play from its most important position, and a little over a month later, they'd worked out a deal to swap Goff for Stafford.

The change proved to be an immediate upgrade, with the Rams winning seven of their first eight games. Then came the in-season struggles, and a notable addition followed: receiver Odell Beckham.

As Beckham worked up to speed, the Rams followed suit, winning five straight from Weeks 12-17 to charge to the top of the NFC West pack, win the division and secure home-field advantage on Super Wild Card Weekend. Two more playoff wins later, and they were back at home for their biggest game: Super Bowl LVI.

Stafford started off hot, teaming with Beckham to get the Rams on the board with an early touchdown pass to the back corner of the end zone. But Beckham's departure due to a knee injury undercut Los Angeles' offensive ambitions, returning the all-too-familiar struggles Stafford endured through much of his previous life in Detroit. He threw two interceptions and the Rams' offense ground to a halt, falling behind in the second half with time running out on their Super Bowl hopes.

Years of adversity had prepared him for this moment. Stafford dug deep, teaming with play-caller McVay and eventual Super Bowl LVI Most Valuable Player Cooper Kupp for four completions on their penultimate possession and covering 79 yards in 15 plays. His one-yard touchdown pass to Kupp pushed the Rams back out in front, and by the time Los Angeles regained possession, all that was left was for Stafford to kneel down one time to complete his journey to becoming a champion.

Stafford knew of the importance of such a victory and the fact it stretched well beyond him. Sure, a ring might help his case to one day end up in Canton, but he wouldn't have gotten there without Los Angeles' star-studded cast of playmakers.

"This is just a long time coming for a lot of guys," Stafford said. "This is Andrew Whitworth, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, so many great players, Robert Woods, on our team, Cooper, so many guys that I could name that just deserve this for the way they go to work every single day. The way they care about each other as teammates and people, just so happy to get it done for those guys."

He also got it done for those most important in his life: his family. It was only right that he celebrated the victory with Kelly and their daughters, starting with a little confetti tossing and continuing with his postgame press conference.

"Just proud of me, happy for me," Stafford said of Kelly's reaction to the Rams' victory. "She's been with me through all these years and we've battled so many things together. To get it done and have her down there with the kids and everything is such a special thing."

After more than a dozen years in the NFL, it was fair to wonder if Stafford might ever make it to a stage with such importance. He'd never even won a playoff game prior to joining the Rams, but ended up winning them all in his first season in Los Angeles.

When the going got tough, Stafford got going, and earned himself a ring no one can ever take from him.

"I love playing this game. I love playing this game for the competition, for the relationships, for the hard times, for the good times, all of it," Stafford explained when asked if he'd thought he might never have a shot at a title. "This game can teach us so much as people. I get to go to work with people from all walks of life, come together and go for one goal. For 12 years, that goal wasn't reached. It tore me up inside, but I knew I could keep playing and try to find a way.

"The fact we reached that goal today is so special."

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