Thu Jan 27 2:20am ET
By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) throws a pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the first half of an NFL divisional round playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) celebrates with wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) after his reception against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half of an NFL divisional round playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) celebrates as he leaves the field after the team defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during an NFL divisional round playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) pumps his fist after his 1-yard touchdown run against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half of an NFL divisional round playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
LOS ANGELES (AP) Matthew Stafford usually mutes his emotions in public, whether he's under center or behind a bank of microphones. He had a measure of California cool long before he moved to the West Coast last year to pursue his biggest football dreams before it was too late.
That's why the rest of the Los Angeles Rams were joyously surprised last Sunday when Stafford let it all out.
After the quarterback completed a majestic 44-yard pass to Cooper Kupp to set up the field goal that sent the Rams to the NFC championship game, Stafford spiked the ball to stop the clock - and then he spiked it again in a frenzied, screaming celebration while he bounced off the field.
''All the guys on the sideline were like, `Man, you were in a dark place,''' Stafford said. ''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. I would have loved to have been taking a knee up three scores, 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.''
Bold, provocative words from a player who isn't prone to grand pronouncements - or even interesting responses to questions during most game weeks.
But everything about Stafford has been focused and amplified while he chases his first Super Bowl ring. With his best chance yet to reach every player's ultimate goal, Stafford has been near his absolute best.
After a strong regular season colored by late-season turnover problems, Stafford has thrown for 570 yards and completed 74.5% of his passes without an interception while earning the first two playoff victories of his career. He has thrown four TD passes and rushed for two more scores while showcasing a poise worthy of the game's best quarterbacks.
His gutsy completion to Kupp - while getting clobbered by Ndamukong Suh, no less - and his subsequent celebration were the punctuation on a clear, declarative statement of Stafford's desire.
''It was kind of Kobe-esque,'' Rams coach Sean McVay said, evoking the ultimate measure of sports passion in Los Angeles.
''He's very poised in front of the media and he's poised during games, but he's got a lot of stuff to him that I think people wouldn't realize,'' McVay added. ''And that's exactly what you want from your quarterback. I love that fire that he has.''
Stafford's first season with the Rams (14-5) has been the most successful of his 13-year NFL career, but he leads Los Angeles against the San Francisco 49ers (12-7) on Sunday knowing they'll probably need another superlative effort from him to beat an opponent that has owned the Rams for three years.
''This is an unbelievable opportunity,'' Stafford said Wednesday. ''It's a whole lot of fun to be doing what we're doing, playing football when we're one of the last four teams left.''
Stafford left the only NFL team he'd ever known and moved his four children across the country last spring because he could feel time marching past him. After a dozen seasons in Detroit, he had only three playoff losses to show for a prolific career on a long series of disappointing teams.
The Rams have provided him with the tools to succeed, and he has improved upon them. For instance, Kupp became the most productive receiver in football when partnered with Stafford, just as Calvin Johnson did regularly during his concurrent career with Stafford in Detroit.
McVay is an innovative, aggressive play-caller whose style is suited to Stafford's strong arm and confident decision-making. Their partnership didn't always work perfectly in the regular season, but the biggest setback for LA's offense in the postseason has been four turnovers by Stafford's teammates against Tampa Bay.
Everything is in place to face the 49ers, who harassed Stafford with a four-man rush in both meetings this season. Stafford excels against blitzes because of his decision-making prowess, but San Francisco frequently drops seven men into coverage and still gets pressure.
Stafford knows all of this, and he is prepared to try again.
''There aren't a ton of varied looks,'' he said. ''They do a great job stunting their defensive line and moving guys after the snap. ... It's about execution for us, guys doing the right thing play in and play out, and when we're getting the opportunities to hit big plays, we have to hit them.''
Stafford has great teammates all around him in Los Angeles, both in the Rams' locker room and at home. His wife, Kelly, reveals more about her husband on her weekly podcast than Stafford himself ever discusses publicly - and this week, she announced her intention to buy championship game tickets for a significant number of Rams fans who have been priced out of SoFi Stadium.
Stafford only needs to focus on his work, and he seems determined to have no regrets next month.
''I'm just trying to make sure that I'm in the present, being kind of where my feet are planted, and taking care of business here,'' Stafford said.
NOTES: LT Andrew Whitworth (knee) and S Taylor Rapp (concussion) are on track to return Sunday, McVay said. ... LT Joseph Noteboom would have missed practice with his pectoral injury if the Rams had held more than a walkthrough. DT Greg Gaines (toe) and WR Van Jefferson (knee) are also starting the week slowly.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (thumb) practiced fully on Wednesday. The 49ers have removed his sprained shoulder from the injury report, but his sprained right thumb remains. The 30-year-old has somehow led the 49ers to the NFC Championship despite throwing for 303 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions over both playoff games. He threw for 316 yards, one touchdown, and two picks in the Week 18 win over the Rams. Garoppolo should be all systems go against the Los Angeles Rams and is the only value option at quarterback for Sunday's main DFS slate with a $6,200 price tag on FanDuel.
San Francisco 49ers running back Jeff Wilson Jr. (knee) did not participate in Wednesday's practice. Teammate Elijah Mitchell also missed Wednesday's session with an ongoing knee issue. Wilson suffered a low-ankle sprain during the first quarter of Saturday's Divisional-Round game over the Green Packers and did not return. According to head coach Kyle Shanahan, he could play in the NFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams. The 26-year-old has two more chances to practice in some capacity and will most likely be questionable for Sunday's game. If active, Wilson could have an expanded role if Mitchell (knee) cannot suit up. Stay tuned.
Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Van Jefferson (knee) did not practice on Wednesday due to a knee injury. The 25-year-old did not participate in the Rams walkthrough session and was listed as a non-participant. He's considered day-to-day, and it's unclear if Van Jefferson will miss the NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers. He caught two passes for 31 yards in the Week 18 loss to the 49ers. Fantasy managers should continue to monitor his status throughout the week. If active, Van Jefferson provides salary relief with his $5,200 price tag and is a solid option against the 49ers in Sunday's main DFS slate. Stay tuned.
San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle isn't listed on the injury report ahead of Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams. He was seen limping at the end of the Divisional-Round win over the Green Bay Packers but is expected to be all systems go for Sunday. The 28-year-old logged a full practice Wednesday and was removed from the injury report. He caught five of seven targets for 10 yards in his previous contest against the Rams. Despite the dud against Los Angeles in Week 18, Kittle provides excellent value at his $5,800 price tag on FanDuel for Sunday's main DFS slate.
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel (knee) isn't listed on Wednesday's injury report ahead of the NFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams. The 26-year-old said he was sore after taking a helmet to the knee in last Saturday's Divisional Round win over the Green Bay Packers. On Wednesday, he logged a full practice and was removed from the injury report. Samuel caught four passes for 95 yards and rushed for 45 yards on eight carries and a score in his previous game against the Rams. Deebo will have a vital role in the NFC Championship Game and is a strong option with his $8,400 price tag on FanDuel for Sunday's DFS slate.
San Francisco 49ers DE Nick Bosa (non-injury), C Alex Mack (non-injury), RB Elijah Mitchell (knee), OT Trent Williams (ankle) and RB Jeff Wilson Jr. (ankle) did not participate in practice Wednesday, Jan. 26. CB Ambry Thomas (knee) was limited during practice, while QB Jimmy Garoppolo (thumb) fully participated in practice.
Atlanta Falcons TE Lee Smith announced his retirement from professional football Tuesday, Jan. 25.
Free-agent WR Josh Gordon was signed to the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad Wednesday, Jan. 26.
Kansas City Chiefs S Tyrann Mathieu (concussion) did not participate in practice Wednesday, Jan. 26. RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (shoulder), CB Rashad Fenton (back), WR Mecole Hardman (hip), WR Tyreek Hill (heel), LB Anthony Hitchens (back), DT Chris D. Jones (groin), CB L'Jarius Sneed (knee), CB Charvarius Ward (neck), RB Darrel Williams (toe) and OG Andrew Wylie (elbow) fully participated in practice.
Buffalo Bills OG Ike Boettger (Achilles) and CB Tre'Davious White (knee) are on schedule in their recoveries, according to head coach Sean McDermott.
Seattle Seahawks impending free-agent S Quandre Diggs is a candidate for the franchise tag this offseason, in the opinion of ESPN.com Brady Henderson.
Atlanta Falcons impending free-agent LB Foyesade Oluokun said he would like to re-sign with the Falcons this offseason, and the Falcons have indicated they are interested in bringing him back.
Arizona Cardinals impending free-agent DE Chandler Jones likely will test the free-agent market before deciding on if he will re-sign with the Cardinals or join another team, in the opinion of ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss.
Minnesota Vikings impending free-agent CB Patrick Peterson is a player the Vikings may be willing to re-sign if he is open to signing for less than the $8 million in received in 2021, in the opinion of ESPN.com's Courtney Cronin.
The San Francisco 49ers have activated Mohamed Sanu from the injured reserve ahead of this weekend's NFC Championship game. However, this does not mean Sanu will slide right back into his old role. Jauan Jennings has come on for the 49ers over the last few weeks and has proven to be a solid chain-mover for Jimmy Garoppolo. If Sanu is active on gameday, he would likely be used as a sure-handed option on third downs or near the red zone, but I wouldn't expect him to be anything more than the WR4 on the team and fifth receiving option overall, which makes him just a DFS dart throw if you're playing single-game showdowns.
San Francisco 49ers running back Elijah Mitchell (knee) didn't practice today. Joining him on the sideline was the team's left tackle Trent Williams, who suffered an ankle injury in Saturday's win. Now, it's obviously early in the week and we should expect these two to play in the biggest game of the year. However, fantasy players should monitor their practice report during the week. Trent Williams and the 49ers offensive line will obviously have their hands full with this Rams' pass rush, so it would be nice to see Williams be close to 100% in order for the 49ers offense to run as smoothly as it wants to. If the line is not 100%, and Mitchell himself is not 100%, that might ding the 49ers feature back in a tough matchup against the Rams.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers TE Rob Gronkowski said he probably would retire if he had to make a decision now but believes he could change his mind in a few weeks.
Fantasy Spin: Fantasy players will need to monitor the situation to see if Gronkowski will continue his playing career. He has indicated he is willing to play even if Tom Brady retires. Gronkowski can be a No. 1 tight end in all leagues if he plays in 2022.
Dallas Cowboys impending free-agent TE Dalton Schultz may be a candidate for the franchise tag this offseason, in the opinion of ESPN.com's Todd Archer.
Fantasy Spin: Schultz was a reliable part of the passing game for the Cowboys this season and finished second on the team with 78 receptions and third with 808 receiving yards. He should be able to post similar stats if he remains with Dallas and can be a No. 1 fantasy tight end.
Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson will not be a trade target for the New York Giants this offseason, according to owner John Mara.
Fantasy Spin: It appears like the Giants will stay with Daniel Jones as their starting quarterback for at least one more season. Jones has struggled since entering the leagues and is a low-end No. 2 receiver in fantasy leagues. Watson likely will be with a new team in 2022 and can be a No. 1 fantasy quarterback if he plays.