Stafford propels Rams past Cardinals 34-11 in playoff rout
By GREG BEACHAM
INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) The Rams had a 20-point lead on Arizona with 4 1/2 minutes left at raucous SoFi Stadium. Matthew Stafford's 13-year quest for his first playoff victory was all but complete after Los Angeles' dominant performance on both sides of the ball.
The quarterback still took off running on third-and-long through the heart of the Cardinals' defense on a gleeful, perilous scramble that ultimately ended short of a first down.
Even while shouldering enormous postseason pressure, Stafford never forgot to have fun. He was strong enough to carry it all - and the Rams are riding him on to Tampa Bay.
Stafford passed for 202 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another score in his first playoff win, and the Rams roared out of the wild-card round with a 34-11 victory over Arizona on Monday night.
"What a team effort," Stafford said. "Our defense played outstanding tonight. Special teams basically set up a score ... and we were good enough on offense to score some points and come away with the win. Just happy to be moving on."
Odell Beckham Jr. and Cooper Kupp made touchdown catches for the NFC West champion Rams (13-5), who will visit the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers on Sunday for a spot in the NFC championship game.
David Long also scored on a 3-yard interception return while the Rams' defense harassed Kyler Murray into a calamitous playoff debut. Los Angeles led 28-0 before cruising in the first playoff game at SoFi, which will host Super Bowl 56 next month.
Stafford was outstanding in his first playoff game with the Rams, completing 13 of his season-low 17 passes without an interception and despite three drops. He scored his first playoff rushing TD since January 2012 on a goal-line sneak, and he coolly directed LA's offense while seizing his first playoff win in a career that began with 12 years in Detroit, where his Lions went 0-3 in the postseason.
"I thought he did a great job leading the way," McVay said. "He's still the same great player to me, and he always was before this game. I think it's good so you guys don't have to talk about that anymore. So pleased be able to do this with him. He's our leader out there, and we wouldn't be here without him."
After an inconsistent finish to the regular season, the Rams' constellation of big stars came together brilliantly around Stafford on the postseason stage.
Beckham had four catches for 54 yards, including his first career playoff touchdown catch for the Rams' first points. He also threw a 40-yard pass during his own first postseason victory.
Linebacker Von Miller added six tackles and a key early sack in his first postseason appearance since winning the MVP award in Super Bowl 50.
Murray went 19 of 34 for 137 yards and two interceptions for the Cardinals (11-7), who followed their 10-2 start with a 1-5 slide. Arizona lost on the road for only the second time in 10 games this season under coach Kliff Kingsbury.
"We didn't do anything right the first two quarters," Kingsbury said. "The Rams handled the game and the atmosphere well. ... As an offense, we were just out of sync on a couple of things early that could have changed the game. We never got in a rhythm, and they made some big plays."
James Conner rushed for a TD for the Cardinals, who have one playoff victory since the 2009 season. Murray went 7 for 17 for 28 yards and threw two interceptions in an awful first half that left the Cardinals trailing 21-0 with just 40 yards of offense before they managed to get their initial first down.
"Losing is one thing, but when you don't even make it competitive is another," Murray said.
Los Angeles went up by three touchdowns when linebacker Troy Reeder's pressure prompted Murray to fling the ball blindly out of the end zone to avoid a safety. Long made a shoe-top interception and took one stride to score the shortest pick-6 in NFL playoff history.
The Rams capped their second offensive drive with Stafford's precise 4-yard throw to Beckham. The veteran wideout has six TD catches in his last eight games since he joined the Rams at midseason.
After Long's TD, the Cardinals finally got a first down seven minutes before halftime, but Rams lineman Marquise Copeland got his first career interception on a deflected pass.
"I feel like we was dominant out there," All-Pro Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald said. "I feel like the quarterback wasn't comfortable at all."
Kupp's TD catch after halftime was set up by Beckham's sharp 40-yard pass down the sideline to Cam Akers - the sixth completion of Beckham's eight-year career.
"He should have led me a little bit," Akers said. "Nah, I'm playing."
Eric Weddle got significant playing time for the Rams in the 37-year-old veteran's first NFL game since the 2019 season finale. The two-time All-Pro safety ended his retirement last week to help out after Los Angeles lost starters Taylor Rapp to a concussion and Jordan Fuller to a season-ending ankle injury.
Cardinals safety Budda Baker left the field on a stretcher in the third quarter after a helmet-to-helmet hit with Akers. Players knelt around Baker in concern before he was taken off the field. He was taken to a hospital for further evaluation, but had movement in his extremities.
"It was just a football play," said Akers, who had 95 total yards. "It wasn't nothing personal. I've got the utmost respect for Budda and that team."
J.J. Watt had three tackles for Arizona in his first game since late October. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year had shoulder surgery, but rushed back to help the Cardinals.
Long (knee) and Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth (ankle) both missed time in the second half.
Cardinals: An offseason evaluation of what went wrong late in such a promising season.
Rams: A showdown with the Buccaneers and Tom Brady, who has a bit more experience under playoff pressure than Murray.
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP-NFL
Updated January 18, 2022