Matthew Stafford’s thumbprints are all over Rams’ resurgence

Matthew Stafford wasn’t a quarterback on this play but a receiver.

He stood in the Rams locker room in the immediate aftermath of a 30-22 victory over the New Orleans Saints, and coach Sean McVay, hoarse and striding back and forth, tossed game balls to the most impactful players.

Finally, the coach held a ball high over his head and announced: “Wouldn’t want anyone else in the world leading us,” and flipped an underhand pass to Stafford as the team erupted.

With 14 touchdowns and one interception in the last five games, Stafford looks so relaxed and precise in finding his targets, he might as well have a dart in one hand and a pint in the other.

“Just the throws he makes, we’re just on the sideline like, ‘How did he do it?’ ” Rams safety John Johnson III said. “With a flick of the wrist, he makes it look effortless. You give him time back there, he’ll dot up any team in the league.”

The Saints came into the game with a good pass defense and more breakups than any team in the NFL. Of course, the best quarterbacks they had faced to this point were Trevor Lawrence and Jared Goff. Those guys are good, but Stafford is at a different level.

“People don’t understand how much he was pushing through with the thumb,” McVay said, referring to the injury on Stafford’s throwing hand that sidelined him for 1½ games. “But this guy is a stud. He elevates everybody, myself included. He’s playing outstanding.”

With two games remaining and the playoffs within reach, the Rams need sturdy performances from Stafford at the New York Giants and at San Francisco to tighten their grip on an NFC wild-card berth.

Amazing how far this team has come. It was only a few months ago that outsiders were speculating that, in this rebuilding year, the Rams should just tank the season so they could draft USC quarterback Caleb Williams.

Now, McVay has assembled a remarkable coaching season, and Stafford has forced his way into the most-valuable-player conversation, though quarterbacks Brock Purdy, Dak Prescott and Lamar Jackson also have made compelling cases.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (right) celebrates with offensive lineman Coleman Shelton.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Remember the kerfuffle at the beginning of the season when people wondered if the 35-year-old Stafford might have problems relating to his younger teammates? His wife raised the topic on her podcast, and the quarterback laughed it off.

That certainly hasn’t been a problem . The Rams are among the youngest teams in the league, and two of their most impactful offensive contributors are rookie receiver Puka Nacua and second-year running back Kyren Williams. Stafford looks as if he’s been playing with them for years.

“He’s raising these youngsters up,” said Stafford’s former left tackle, Andrew Whitworth, who was at Thursday night’s game in his new role as an Amazon Prime color analyst.

“I actually sent him a text at about midseason. I was here for a game, and I knew a play didn’t go the way it was supposed to, and I saw him come on the sideline and saw how angry he was. Instead of lashing out, there was this moment where he sat down for a second and you could see his body language. He took a deep breath, set his helmet down and he walked over and put his arm around the kid and was gentle.

“When I see Matthew right now, I think he’s having the most fun being the big brother. He’s kind of the steady guy that they can all lean on for a million different reasons. And in the games, he gets to watch their energy and passion, and he gets to feed off of that.”

A video went viral last week of Stafford and his wife, Kelly, posing for a photo with their four young daughters, and the quarterback answered a question about that after Thursday’s game.

The youngest of the girls advised the quarterback: “Daddy, have a good game. Don’t get tackled.”

“It’s a special time in my life,” he said. “To be able to do what I get to do still, play at a high level and have them understand what’s going on and to watch and cheer. Obviously, my youngest is pretty dialed in, telling me not to get hit — she’s a smart girl.

“I love getting to see them before games down on the sideline and then wave to them after we play. It’s a whole lot of fun.”

It’s clear that Stafford is enjoying himself, with a chance to extend the type of season few people envisioned. Sure, he’s in the back half of his career, but his play lately has been ageless.

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