INGLEWOOD, Calif. — When you’re the No. 1 pick in the draft, you’re supposed to play for a shot at reaching the Super Bowl.
When you’re the No. 1 pick in the draft and it’s the Lions selecting you . . . well, things are different.
Say hi to Matthew Stafford, the newly minted quarterback of the Rams who has had to heal the psychological wounds of a dozen seasons with one of the league’s worst franchises.
Stafford is 33 years old and one victory away from Super Bowl LVI, but he’s light years away from where he was just last year — toiling for a Lions team hopelessly out of playoff contention.
With a win over the 49ers on Sunday at SoFi Stadium, Stafford will reach the game the Lions once hoped he would play in when they took him out of Georgia in 2009. However, there would be only four winning seasons and three playoff appearances — all losses — for the big-armed passer. Finally tired of running on the hamster wheel of defeat, Stafford told the Lions he couldn’t take it anymore, and would they please find him a new home.
At last, he has discovered what it’s like to play for an offense that is at times unstoppable and a team that is constantly in win-now mode under energetic 36-year-old coach Sean McVay. It is here that McVay and Stafford have combined their talents — McVay with his mind and Stafford with his arm — to produce a team worthy of Super Bowl contention.
Stafford played like a championship quarterback in the first two rounds of the postseason this year, throwing a combined four touchdown passes and no interceptions in wins over the Cardinals and Cowboys to set up this NFC Championship Game matchup against the 49ers.
He is 60 minutes away from qualifying for a Super Bowl that will be played in his home venue, although he might not feel so at home when he hears a crowd that is expected to include several thousand 49ers fans.
But Stafford will try to filter out the noise — both literally and figuratively — by concentrating on the here-and-now and not the rocky road he traveled to get this far.
"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. "I had a great time, a great run there [in Detroit]. I loved playing there for 12 years. But I’m in this place now and enjoying the opportunity to be a part of this team and see where we can take it."
It was a mostly terrific year for Stafford, who got off to a 3-0 start that included a victory over the defending champion Buccaneers in Los Angeles. But a late-season wobble drew unwanted comparisons to his days in Detroit, as Stafford had as many interceptions (eight) as he did touchdown passes in his last four games. The Rams went 3-1 in those games, but the loss was potentially significant in light of Sunday’s matchup. The 49ers rallied for a 27-24 overtime win in the regular-season finale, and Stafford’s two interceptions didn’t help the Rams any.
The 49ers won both games against the Rams this season, and McVay is 0-6 over the last three years against Niners coach Kyle Shanahan, who once was an assistant coach on the same staff as McVay in Washington. Just as Stafford has to fight the urge to think back to more difficult times in Detroit, McVay must do the same to deal with his personal matchup against Shanahan.
Together, McVay and Stafford can go a long way toward healing themselves through victory.
Is Shanahan inside McVay’s head?
"No," McVay said this week. "What I do have is respect for these guys. You’ve got to play well in that 3 1⁄2-hour window that we’re allotted. We’re competing and preparing to the best of our ability to see if we can advance."
The McVay-Stafford partnership has flourished just as they had hoped when the quarterback was dealt to Los Angeles, with erstwhile Rams starter Jared Goff shipped to the Lions. But anything short of a win Sunday will be a disappointment for the coach and his quarterback.
It says here that Stafford will be the biggest factor in whether he gets to play in his first Super Bowl.
Or whether he feels the pain of defeat that defined his time in Detroit.
Matthew Stafford in the playoffs this season: