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Rams demolish overmatched Cardinals, giving Matthew Stafford his first career playoff win

It was easy pickings on Monday night for the Rams against Kyler Murray and the Cardinals. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The all-in, go-for-broke, Super Bowl-or-bust Los Angeles Rams play on. They still have a chance to make their huge investments pay off with the postseason glory they have pursued so intently.

The Rams, after making high-profile player moves in a bold bid to return to the upper tier of NFL contenders and advance deep into the postseason, more than survived the opening round of the playoffs. They thrived. Their stars played like stars. The Rams raised their level of play and trounced the Arizona Cardinals, 34-11, on Monday night in Inglewood, Calif., in a postseason matchup of NFC West foes.

“I think we’re just jelling at the right time,” Rams pass rusher Von Miller said. “We’ve been doing the same thing since I got here. It just feels like it’s working. The offense is playing well. Special teams is playing well. And our defense is feeding off that.”

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The fourth-seeded Rams moved on to an NFC divisional-round matchup Sunday in Tampa against the second-seeded Buccaneers. The fifth-seeded Cardinals are done far earlier than they had hoped when they were the league’s top team through the early stages of the regular season.

“I thought our guys just did a good job … playing a complete game,” Rams Coach Sean McVay said. “And that’s what we wanted to be able to do coming in here. … Our guys are really mentally tough. And now we’ve got to be able to stack another block next week against the Bucs.”

Quarterback Matthew Stafford threw two touchdown passes for the Rams, one to Odell Beckham Jr. and the other to fellow wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Stafford also had a rushing touchdown. Beckham threw and completed a long pass on a trick play. McVay won two key instant replay challenges. Miller had a sack and the Rams intercepted Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray twice, returning one for a touchdown.

“It was everybody,” Stafford said.

Stafford secured his first career postseason triumph. He’d been 0-3 in the playoffs with the Detroit Lions.

“I thought he did a great job leading the way,” McVay said during his postgame news conference. “He’s still the same great player to me. And he always was before this game as well. And so I think it’s good so you guys don’t have to talk about that anymore.”

The Rams scored the game’s first 28 points and never looked back. It was 21-0 at halftime, and the game was essentially over at that point. This was what the Rams envisioned when they geared up for a Super Bowl run.

They traded for Stafford in the offseason. They traded for Miller, adding him to a star-studded defense with tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, during the season, then signed Beckham after he was released by the Cleveland Browns. They won the division crown, although McVay had to hold things together amid a three-game skid in November. The Rams regrouped with a five-game winning streak.

McVay beat the Cardinals for the 10th time in 11 meetings since becoming the coach of the Rams. The Rams were victorious in the NFL’s first Monday night playoff game since last year’s expansion of the postseason field.

The Cardinals lost in the NFL playoff debuts of Murray and Coach Kliff Kingsbury. They’d defeated the Rams earlier this season at SoFi Stadium, and they’d gone 8-1 on the road during the regular season. But they could not carry that away-from-home proficiency into the playoffs. Even the return of veteran defensive standout J.J. Watt, who was activated from the injured reserve list earlier Monday, didn’t help.

“We put up an embarrassing performance,” Watt said. “There’s no other way to put it, really.”

The Cardinals ended the season losing four of their final five regular season games following a 10-2 start.

“That’s not indicative of who we want to be,” Kingsbury said. “And unfortunately that showed up tonight.”

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The Rams, at least for one night, resembled the super-team they have tried so hard to assemble. They dominated the first half in every way and outgained the Cardinals, 180 total yards to 40. The Cardinals helped out with a series of blunders.

“That game wasn’t competitive at all,” Murray said. “It’s disappointing that we didn’t make it a game and come out and play the football we know we’re capable of playing. That’s really the most disappointing part. Losing is one thing. But when you don’t even make it competitive, that’s another thing. So that’s disappointing.”

Stafford lobbed a four-yard touchdown pass to Beckham on a first-quarter fade pattern. Stafford reached the end zone on a one-yard quarterback sneak in the second quarter, courtesy of McVay’s challenge after Stafford originally had been ruled short of the goal line.

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McVay also had a successful challenge to negate a catch by the Cardinals on the play before Murray, being hit as he was attempting to pass out of his own end zone, flung the ball wildly toward no one in particular. Rams linebacker David Long Jr. grabbed the ball for an interception and eased three yards into the end zone.

“The defense was phenomenal,” McVay said.

Stafford’s seven-yard touchdown pass to Kupp in the third quarter increased the lead to 28-0.

“I felt like I was putting the ball in the right place for the majority of the night. … Our guys made great plays,” Stafford said. “That’s how I expect to go out and play every game. It doesn’t always happen that way. But I just felt good out there, felt comfortable. And our team played great.”

Continue reading for more game coverage and analysis:

10:35 p.m.
Headshot of Jerry Brewer
Sports columnist
It’s safe to declare this so-called Super Wild Card Weekend a bust. Four of the six games have been blowouts, and, like, really bad blowouts.Philly was never in it against Tampa Bay. Buffalo obliterated New England. Kansas City destroyed Pittsburgh. And now the Rams are outclassing the Cardinals. Even the competitive games were known as much for weird stuff as memorable performances: the clumsy way Dallas finished its loss to San Francisco and the inadvertent whistle in the Bengals-Raiders game. Some of the poor performances are just how it goes sometimes. But the terrible showings of No. 7 seeds Pittsburgh and Philadelphia made a strong case that the NFL doesn’t have 14 teams worthy of the postseason.This is Year 2 of the enhanced playoffs, and while it means most of the league’s 32 teams remain in playoff contention into December, it also increases the potential for more lopsided playoff results. Now, you have No. 2 seeds that should be enjoying a playoff bye facing No. 7 seeds that don’t belong. It’s not a great representation of the product. Or maybe it is. No league packages mediocrity as well as the NFL. This time, however, there’s no masking how uninteresting the games turned out to be.
10:02 p.m.
Headshot of Jerry Brewer
Sports columnist
I struggle to remember a quarterback of Kyler Murray’s caliber playing such a disastrous half. He was 7 of 17 for 28 yards and threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Passer rating: 9.3.The Rams were ferocious on defense, but the Arizona Coach Kliff Kingsbury did him no favors with his play-calling. The Cardinals ran the ball just seven times in the first half. It’s puzzling because Arizona ran the ball well in two games against Los Angeles in the regular season, putting up 216 yards in a Week 4 victory and a respectable 103 during a loss later in the season. The inability to get deep into the playbook was a problem; the Cardinals didn’t gain a first down until the second quarter. But still, there were opportunities to commit to the run or employ an attack of short passes that could serve as an extension of the run. They did neither, and Murray never settled into the game. Even if he plays better in the second half, the memory of how his first playoff start began will linger.
9:38 p.m.
Headshot of Jerry Brewer
Sports columnist
This is a complete meltdown by Arizona.Kyler Murray is in his head, trying to do too much. Kliff Kingsbury didn’t try to establish the run to start the game, which was a huge mistake. Kingsbury’s inexperience is showing. Murray’s inexperience is even more pronounced. He held onto the ball — in the end zone — for too long, and afraid he was going to be pulled down for a safety, he threw a backbreaking interception.At 21-0, it’s hard to see the Cardinals coming back from this. And considering they lost four of five games to end the regular season, this performance will be considered part of another late-season swoon for Kingsbury’s team. They may have made the playoffs this time, but they’re still haunted by the issue of how they perform when it matters most. That front-runner reputation may be hard to shed.
9:16 p.m.
Headshot of Jerry Brewer
Sports columnist
Arizona is in trouble.It’s not just that the Cardinals are down two touchdowns. That’s manageable, even though it may not seem like it. The biggest problem is that they have shown no ability to mask their two most glaring problems: run defense and a young head coach. They have built a modern defense, full of speed and versatility and playmakers who thrive in space. But they allowed 4.6 yards per rush during the regular season, which was only 26th in the NFL. And the Rams are gashing them with their diverse rushing attack.It’s on Coach Kliff Kingsbury, hired for his offensive creativity despite a mediocre college record, to make better use of Kyler Murray and help Arizona get back in this game, But Kingsbury has a strange habit of calling tight, panicky games during high-pressure situations. He had better snap out of it, or else this could be one final blowout to end wild card weekend.
8:51 p.m.
Headshot of Jerry Brewer
Sports columnist
After the Rams acquired him at midseason, Odell Beckham Jr. didn’t magically turn back into the elite receiver he once was. In eight games, he caught 27 passes for 305 yards and had just two games that could be considered good (five catches for 81 yards in a loss to Green Bay, six catches for 77 yards in a win over Arizona).But he did score five touchdowns despite the below-average productivity, signs that Sean McVay and the Rams have an idea how to utilize his big-play capabilities. He may never be the player he was during his phenomenal first three seasons in the NFL, but he’s still dangerous, which he has shown early in this game. And his gravity as a player whom defenses still must respect is a help to Cooper Kupp and other weapons Matt Stafford wants to target.