Maybe the Game of the Year in the NFC is coming to us quickly this Sunday in Los Angeles when the Rams host the Buccaneers. It could be the only major road challenge Tampa Bay, still a 1.5-point favorite, faces all year in this attempt to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
It’s also the biggest game of Matthew Stafford’s career, which no one seems to be playing up like they should.
Forget playing on Wild Card Weekend three times as an underdog with the Lions in seasons they weren’t going anywhere. This is a huge chance in his third game with the Rams for Stafford to show that he can be trusted in a big spot like this one, a game that could go a long way in determining home-field advantage in January.
“I just want to play in big games, you know? … I want to have opportunities to make big-time plays in the fourth quarter against really good teams, in big moments, rather than a one o’clock game on a Sunday somewhere,” Stafford told Seth Wickersham in a feature story on ESPN.
Well here you are, Matthew. There could be future opportunities in Green Bay (Week 12) and Baltimore (Week 17) to show what you’re made of on the road, but this is the defending champions in your building. It doesn’t get any bigger than that in the regular season.
The problem is Stafford played dozens of really good teams when he spent a dozen seasons in Detroit, and he didn’t come away with a dozen wins in those matchups.
The Incredible, Seemingly Impossible Matthew Stafford Record
Stafford is 8-68 (.105) as a starter in games against teams that finished the season with a winning record. It’s such a staggering record that I have to include the table (that barely fits on my screen anymore) of every game to prove that it’s legitimate.
Did Stafford play like an 8-68 quarterback in these games? Of course not. He had a few fine performances that still resulted in a loss because he was on the Detroit Lions and the other team was just better. However, some of those eight wins leave a lot to be desired too. Two were against teams that finished 8-7-1, including a 2013 Packers team that did not have Aaron Rodgers. He got a win over Rodgers in his 2014 MVP season, but it was a 19-7 game where Detroit’s defense carried the team. Stafford threw no touchdowns and two interceptions. His only other win against a team with 12+ wins was against the 2017 Vikings (13-3), and that too was a low-scoring game (14-7) where he failed to throw a touchdown.
While the problems Detroit had in the running game and defense were detrimental to Stafford having success in these games, it’s not like those problems hampered the team enough in every other game against non-winning teams. In fact, since 2001, Stafford joins just Teddy Bridgewater and Kirk Cousins as the only three quarterbacks to win over 70% of their starts against non-winning opponents and under 20% against winning opponents (min. 50 starts). That is plotted below with the trio chilling in the far left of the graph:
In going 8-68 against winning teams, Stafford has an 83.7 passer rating, 6.90 YPA, and 5.72 ANY/A, which factors in sacks. Those are not terrible numbers, but they are not that impressive for a franchise quarterback. I’ve plotted every quarterback’s win% against winning teams vs. their ANY/A in those games.
The fascinating part of this whole Stafford to Los Angeles experiment is to see if Sean McVay can get the best out of him and improve on what has been an eyesore of a resume in big games. Can you really get to a Super Bowl when you need to beat so many good teams along the way to finish with a seed high enough to make it realistic? Can you get through a Brady or Rodgers in January with this guy?
- Stafford has never won more than one game against a winning team in the same season in his career, and he has never won consecutive games against winning teams in his career.
- Stafford is 5-35 (.125) at home and 3-33 (.083) on the road against winning teams.
- Stafford is 2-26 (.071) against teams that finished 12-4 or better.
- Stafford is 0-48 when Detroit allowed more than 24 points against a winning opponent.
- Stafford is 2-62 (.031) when Detroit allowed more than 17 points against a winning opponent.
- Stafford is 39-51-1 (.434) at 4QC/GWD opportunities in his career, but that record drops to 2-34 (.056) against teams with a winning record.
How might this play out when Tampa Bay has won 10 games in a row and scored at least 26 points in all of them? At the very least, Stafford has notched a win over a Brady-led team that went on to win the Super Bowl (2018 Patriots), but the Buccaneers bring a lot more firepower to this matchup.
Stafford also comes armed with his best team. He is getting that McVay play-design boost with more YAC/completion than anyone not named Jimmy Garoppolo this season. For only the second time in his career, he has led his team to at least 27 points without throwing more than 30 passes in consecutive games. But people may be overstating just how great the Rams are. After all, Stafford did have Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate as his receivers with Ndamukong Suh leading the defense in an All-Pro season in 2014, the closest Stafford ever came to winning a playoff game (at Dallas). Now Suh is one of the cogs on Tampa Bay’s defensive line where Vita Vea has been dominant this season. The Bucs have not been scary good on defense yet, but they picked off Matt Ryan twice for touchdowns in the fourth quarter last week.
In Week 1 against the Bears, Stafford got off to a great start and had the first 150-plus passer rating game of his career. Practically a statement that this isn’t Detroit anymore, and he is going to feast on these play-action bombs. However, that Week 2 win in Indianapolis felt like a classic 1 P.M. Detroit win with Stafford. It was close, he had an interception, the special teams had a bad screw-up and gave up a touchdown to fall behind late, and Stafford got the job done and led a game-winning drive. Cooper Kupp was awesome on the day, but it’s not like the running backs (23 carries for 99 yards) were dominant or the defense destroyed Carson Wentz, who left injured and watched the backup throw the game away with an interception.
That Indianapolis game basically led me to believe that this is not going to be a super team with Stafford a la what Peyton Manning brought to the Broncos or Brett Favre to the Vikings in 2009. And yes, what Brady did with Tampa Bay last year, though his two-game start there was inferior to what Stafford has done so far. We have to remind ourselves that this is only two games, and there is no better chance for the Rams to make a statement about their contender status than with a great showing on Sunday.
This would be the kind of win that could reshape the whole outlook on the season.
The Goff Comparison
Of course, the other fascinating part to this matchup and the Stafford experiment is Jared Goff. With McVay as his coach, Goff was 17-16 (.515) against teams with a winning record and he was even 5-12 (.294) against winning teams that scored more than 24 points. Not 0-48.
But the game that really stands out this week was the 27-24 upset win in Tampa Bay last season. Goff led an 80-yard touchdown drive on the road to start it, fell behind 14-7, fought back to a halftime lead, then broke the tie twice in the second half, including a game-winning drive for a field goal. The defense finished off Brady, who was picked twice.
Goff also had two picks on an imperfect night, but McVay put the offense on his shoulders. Goff was 39-of-51 for 376 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, and he took no sacks while the running game provided just 19 carries for 37 yards. Can Stafford do this against the Bucs this week? Stafford is 1-12 in his career when he throws at least 50 passes. Against teams that won exactly 10 games, Stafford was 1-17, beating the Packers in 2015 after Mason Crosby missed a game-winning field goal. That game is worth highlighting since it is the only time in his career that Stafford beat a winning team despite the Lions not rushing for at least 84 yards. Otherwise, the Lions were 0-46 in such games.
When Goff and McVay met the Bucs in 2019, it was a wild and sloppy 55-40 game with Goff turning it over four times. He threw 68 passes and the Rams ran the ball 11 times for 28 yards. The Bucs are really good at stopping the run and have been for a while now. With Darrell Henderson banged up, it is very likely (even if Henderson was healthy) that the Rams are going to get stopped cold in the running game on Sunday.
So it is going to be on Stafford to outduel Brady, the LOAT. He might catch a break with Antonio Brown testing positive for COVID, but Tampa Bay still has three outstanding receivers to work with and plenty more depth to use as well. Brady and Stafford are two of the least pressured quarterbacks this season, so it could be a passing fest and we’ll see who blinks first.
As much as I’d love to see Stafford destroy a Brady-led team like he did in 2018, I’m just not ready to trust him. I need to see it first, and then maybe I’ll believe he can do it again. But regardless of what happens on Sunday, Stafford is going to have to have big games against top teams in a way he never has in his NFL career if this trade is going to work out for the Rams. The NFC West is shaping up to be the toughest division in the NFL too, but right now the real litmus test in the NFC is facing Stafford and the Rams in the face on Sunday.
Final: Bucs 32, Rams 26