Opinion: Matthew Stafford finally gets to ‘steal somebody’s soul’ in his winning moment with Rams – USA TODAY

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TAMPA – The back-breaker finally came with less than 30 seconds left on the clock, in the fourth quarter of a frenetic NFC divisional playoff at a suddenly raucous Raymond James Stadium.

Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams seemed to be on the verge of a magnificent meltdown against Tom Brady & Co. that brought back memories of the time TB12 sparked a rally against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

The game was tied after the Buccaneers somehow stormed back from a 27-3 deficit – bolstered by one Rams mistake after another – and seemed destined to head to overtime.

Somehow, though, Stafford, often derided throughout his career as a quarterback who couldn’t lift his team against the best competition, would not let the Rams lose as his heart raced. And with no timeouts left, this meant standing up in the face of an all-out blitz – and heat up the middle from Ndamukong Suh – that would test his resolve, wits and, well, manhood in the clutch.

Done.

Stafford spotted the blitz, noticed the angle that star receiver Cooper Kupp had on a deep clear-out route and let it rip. He threw an arching pass that covered half the length of the field and connected with Kupp for a 44-yard completion that set up a 30-yard Matt Gay field goal as time expired, propelling L.A. to the NFC title game, 30-27.

When they lined up for the play, Stafford figured Kupp would be the last eligible receiver who would see the football. Kupp agreed, but carried out his assignment hoping to set up an opening for another target underneath. In the Rams’ meeting rooms, they call Kupp’s pattern a “Love of the Game” route – essentially because it is run as a complementary measure.

Yet when the Bucs brought the house, Stafford had his shot.

“Truly, what he was able to do against a ‘zero’ (blitz), where he knows he’s hot, being able to stand in there, stare down the barrel, put the ball up, it’s just an incredible play by Matthew,” Kupp marveled.

It was also a play that illustrated precisely why the Rams traded away Jared Goff, good enough to quarterback them to a Super Bowl three years ago, in a blockbuster deal with the Detroit Lions that was laced with the vision that a grizzled veteran could put them over the top.

Truth is, Goff doesn’t make that throw. Stafford, with a cannon arm that is one of the strongest in the NFL, made it when it mattered most.

A few days ago, Stafford was the quarterback who had never won a playoff game. Now he’s the one who got the best of Brady to wind up one victory shy of a Super Bowl.

It’s no wonder that before and after he spiked the ball to stop the clock before the game-winning kick, Stafford flowed with the jumping, screaming emotion that let us all know what a personal breakthrough looked like.

“All the guys on the sideline were like, ‘Man, you were in a dark place,’ ” Stafford said of his reaction in the moment. “I said, ‘Sometimes, you just have to go to those places and make some plays happen.’ I was enjoying the moment. In my mind, I live for those kind of moments.”

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Stafford, 33, has more often been on the other side of those moments during his NFL career. The man knows heartbreak. After being drafted No. 1 overall in 2009, he spent the first 12 years of his pro career with the Lions – a franchise with an inglorious knack for finding creative ways to lose.

Now he’s on the other side, drama and all. His big completion answered Leonard Fournette’s nine-yard TD run that tied the game with 42 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

“I would have loved to have been taking a knee up three scores,” said Stafford, who passed for 366 yards and two TDs with a 121.2 efficiency rating. “But it’s a whole lot more fun when you’ve got to make a play like that to win the game and just steal somebody’s soul.

“That’s what it feels like sometimes, where they are just sitting there going, ‘Man, we just had this great comeback,’ and you reach in there and take it from them. That’s a whole lot of fun.”

That’s something we never heard from Stafford in Detroit. But it’s a new chapter now – for Stafford and the Rams.

“I’ll tell you what: He certainly delivered in a big win today,” gushed Rams coach Sean McVay. “That’s why you go get him. Always had a lot of confidence in Matthew. That never wavered. It never wavered, the confidence he had in himself, the teammates, the coaches.”

McVay saw it all come to fruition in crunch time.

“He had a look in his eye,” McVay said.

The look of a quarterback on a big stage who for at least another week, refused to let his team lose.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.