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Column: Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay bear the brunt of Rams’ playoff pressure

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) leaves the field after the Rams' overtime loss to the 49ers.
Matthew Stafford has never left the field with a playoff victory, having failed in three tries.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

He is spectacular and terrible. He inspires and infuriates. He thrills and taunts.

He is a quarterback who leads the Rams amid great suspense, their fate resting on shoulders that might steel or slump, everybody cautious, nobody certain, and all of it very familiar.

A year ago, this was Jared Goff.

Today, this is Matthew Stafford.

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You’re kidding, right?

The Rams traded two first-round picks and a third-round pick for a quarterback who enters the postseason in the same pickle that pretty much described the career of the previous Rams quarterback?

They’re generations apart -- Cam Akers is 22 and Eric Weddle 37 -- but both are making comebacks with the Rams in hopes of a super season.

The Rams traded Goff for … Goff?

The situation is not nearly that egregious, of course, but the Rams are heading into Monday night’s NFC wild-card game against the Arizona Cardinals with a quarterback who has too often complemented his brilliance with brain cramps, a guy who has occasionally resembled Goff in all but one category.

Goff won three playoff games. Stafford has yet to win one.

For the Rams to consider that bold trade and this pressurized season a success, Stafford needs to change that narrative now.

The brunt of the postseason pressure is squarely on him and his wingman coach Sean McVay to guide this Rams team through a three-game playoff maze and wind up in the Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium.

Anything less and, well, heck, Jared Goff could have done that.

“Every time I step on the field, I’m proving myself … this is just another opportunity to do that,” Stafford said in a videoconference Thursday. “This is a team game no question, but at the same time do I know when the quarterback plays good, do you have a better chance to win the game? Absolutely.”

Did he have a big hand in the Rams’ dozen victories? Yes. But have his mistakes put pressure on the rest of the team while leading to their five losses? Absolutely.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) runs to congratulate Tyler Higbee (89) after the tight end scored against the 49ers.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) runs to congratulate Tyler Higbee (89) after the tight end scored against the 49ers.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Stafford has had some sparkling numbers befitting some incredible throws — 41 touchdown passes, 4,886 yards, a 102.9 passer rating. But he also tied for the league lead with 17 interceptions, and has had eight turnovers in the last three games, including two interceptions Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers in a loss that made their postseason path much more difficult.

Then there was his incredibly bad streak of three consecutive games with pick sixes. For comparison’s sake, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers has thrown three pick sixes in his career.

“There’s an occupational hazard on some of the turnovers … they certainly don’t all fall on him,” McVay said in the videoconference. “The answer is yes, I’m very pleased with him, looking forward to playing clean ball in the postseason … if he just plays within himself, I trust really good things will happen with this team.”

The Rams’ inability to beat the San Francisco 49ers shows why Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay don’t have what it takes to reach the Super Bowl.

Hmmm. Can you imagine McVay ever referring to Goff’s mistakes as an “occupational hazard?” McVay would get so angry at Goff’s goofs, the coach himself would be an occupational hazard.

All season, McVay has famously treated Stafford much more reverently than he ever treated Goff, partially because Stafford has more credibility, but also perhaps because McVay has no option.

Last spring the coach made such a stink about getting a new quarterback, his reputation is now directly tied to Stafford’s success. For better or worse, they are in this together. A Stafford victory is a McVay victory. A Stafford failure is a McVay failure. Enough Stafford failures and McVay will start feeling real heat.

When I asked McVay if he was satisfied with Stafford’s season, he rushed to his quarterback’s defense.

“The answer is yes,” he said. “I love the competitiveness. No way we win that division and 12 games without him.”

He later expressed surprise that people would question his guy.

Rams running back Cam Akers’ return from a torn Achilles tendon shattered the perceived rehabilitation timeframe, and Dr. Neal ElAttrache knows why.

“I almost think he gets short-sighted because he’s been such a great player for so long, and it’s almost like, you’re going to want to try and nitpick,” McVay said. “I love what this guy has done, and I know what he’s capable of, and I have total confidence and belief in him.”

Eight turnovers in three games is nitpicking? If Stafford had one of those performances in the next few weeks, you’ll be nitpicking through pieces of the Rams shattered season.

McVay then defended Stafford’s playoff record, which was 0-3 with the Detroit Lions.

“His body of work speaks to itself, I don’t think you just can’t confine it to, he hasn’t won a playoff game,” he said. “I don’t want to get in trouble, but the Dallas game he played when he was in Detroit, he probably won that, and that was out of his control, wasn’t it?”

Indeed, after the 2014 season, Stafford’s Lions lost 24-20 to Dallas in a wild-card game after an obviously warranted pass interference call against the Cowboys was strangely overruled with the Lions driving for the clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter.

The Rams’ first playoff task is to beat the slumping Arizona Cardinals, and that will require stopping the run.

But what the coach didn’t say was that Stafford was totally outplayed in that game by Tony Romo, with Stafford having a pass intercepted and ending the game by losing a fumble. In his three playoff games, Stafford has a very average passer rating of 87.8 with four touchdowns and three interceptions.

Bottom line, for the next month, Stafford needs to be better, and everyone knows it, even if everyone associated with the Rams won’t say it.

“One of my favorite things about him, this guy’s not afraid to fail,” said McVay of Stafford. “I’ll ride with people like that all day, every day.”

Strap in. Hang on. That ride begins now.


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