Matthew Stafford back to Detroit with Rams to face Lions in playoffs

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) throws during the first half an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

By Associated Press

January 12, 2024

DETROIT—The Detroit Lions’ first home playoff game in three decades features the return of one of the many quarterbacks who failed to lift the franchise to postseason success since it won the NFL title in 1957.

Matthew Stafford, drafted by a Detroit in 2009 coming off the league’s first 0-16 season, is making his return to Ford Field with the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday night — three years after asking for a trade that triggered a win-win blockbuster deal.

The Rams acquired Stafford, who led them to Super Bowl title two years ago, in exchange for Jared Goff and first-round picks that helped the Lions draft record-breaking rookie tight end Sam LaPorta, standout rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs and second-year receiver Jameson Williams.

Lions general manager Brad Holmes made the deal in January 2021 with the Rams — the team that employed him for the previous 18 seasons — shortly after he was hired by Detroit. Holmes was tasked with turning around an organization that has been one of the NFL’s worst for generations.

Detroit’s most recent playoff victory was on Jan. 5, 1992, and that was the franchise’s only postseason win in six-plus decades.

“This town is ready for a winner, and we’re ready to give them that,” said Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who is from suburban Detroit and played at Michigan. “There’s been a lot of tough years for the Lions.”

The Rams got off a rough start this season, going into their bye with a 3-6 record, before bouncing back to earn a postseason bid for the fifth time in coach Sean McVay’s seven seasons.

“I’m excited to go play anybody anywhere in the playoffs,” said Stafford, who set franchise records for yards passing and touchdowns over 12 seasons in Detroit. “We were a team that at the beginning of the season, nobody gave us a chance to be at the position that we’re in.”

Matthew Stafford back to Detroit with Rams to face Lions in playoffs

Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff (16) throws during the first half of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

FIRST-TIMERS

The Rams won the Super Bowl after the 2021 season, but much of that team’s core is gone.

Los Angeles had the NFL’s second-youngest roster for much of the season, which means about two dozen first- or second-year players will make their playoff debuts in Detroit. The group includes record-setting rookie receiver Puka Nacua, 1,100-yard rusher Kyren Williams and the rookie pass-rushing tandem of Kobie Turner and Byron Young.

“A lot of the guys around the building are hyped,” Turner said. “To go back with Matthew, and to have it be their first home playoff game in 30 years, I know the atmosphere is going to be insane.”

SILVER LINING

When Detroit coach Dan Campbell decided to play his starters last week, hanging onto slim hopes of going from the No. 3 to 2 seed, it looked like Sam LaPorta might have been a casualty.

The standout rookie tight end landed awkwardly on his left leg while being tackled, and was knocked out of the game with a knee injury that appeared serious.

LaPorta, though, said he was able to some run some routes and participate in blocking drills at practice Thursday.

“When it first happened, it didn’t feel great,” he said. “I feel like I’ve started to bounce back quickly.”

The Pro Bowl player had 86 catches, breaking Keith Jackson’s NFL record for receptions by a rookie tight end that had stood since 1988, and set franchise marks at the position with 889 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns.

CROWDED HOUSE

The Rams had to play only one postseason road game during their championship run two years ago, but McVay and some of his veteran leaders have been in hostile playoff atmospheres.

McVay said the NFC championship game in New Orleans in January 2019 — when Campbell coached the Saints’ tight ends — prepared players such as receiver Cooper Kupp and defensive tackle Aaron Donald for what they’ll hear at the Motor City’s indoor stadium.

“It’ll be crazy,” McVay said.

POTENTIALLY PIVOTAL

How Stafford fares through the air, particularly to Nacua and Kupp, against one of the league’s worst pass defenses may prove to be the difference in the game.

Detroit defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson, though, does not sound to be worried about it.

“I’ve been against tougher quarterbacks,” said Gardner-Johnson, who played in six postseason games with New Orleans and Philadelphia. “He’s a good quarterback, a great quarterback.”

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