SPORTS DIGEST: Rams-Lions game features Stafford-Goff matchup

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

Almost three years after they were traded for each other, Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff go head-to-head Jan. 14 in a game that really matters — an NFL playoff wild card round game between Stafford’s Los Angeles Rams and Goff’s Detroit Lions.

In February 2021, the Rams — particularly head coach Sean McVay — had soured on Goff, their first-round draft pick in 2016, even though he led the Rams to the Super Bowl in 2018. 

While on a post-season vacation, McVay ran into Stafford and shortly thereafter the Rams agreed to swap quarterbacks with the Lions, sweetening the pot with six draft picks — first-round picks in 2022 and 2023, second-round picks in 2022 and 2023 and third-round picks in 2021 and 2023.

The trade paid off immediately for the Rams. Stafford led the team to the 2022 Super Bowl, a game played on the Rams’ home field at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.

The Rams won the Super Bowl, defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20 with Stafford throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns and earning Super Bowl Most Valuable Player honors.

The trade starting paying dividends for the Lions in 2022 when Goff, under second-year head coach Dan Campbell, led the team to a 9-8 record, just failing to make the playoffs on a tiebreaker.

This season, the Lions are one of the success stories of the NFL. They finished 12-5, won the NFC North and are the third seeded team in the NFC. 

They used the six draft picks from the Rams to acquire three defensive players and three skill-position players on offense. The skill position players have helped the Lions become an offensive power in the NFC. Running back Jahmyr Gibbs gained 945 yards and scored 11 touchdowns this season as a rookie. Rookie tight end Sam Laporta caught 86 passes for 10 touchdowns this season.

Wide receiver Jameson Williams caught 24 passes this season in 12 games. He was a No. 1 pick in 2022.

In his three seasons in Detroit, Goff has thrown for 12,258 yards and 78 touchdowns. The Lions have improved every season, going from three wins in 2021 to nine last season and 12 this year.

This season’s stats compare favorably with Goff’s 2018 season when he threw for 4,688 yards and 32 touchdowns, both career highs. Goff led the Rams to the Super Bowl that season with a 13-3 record.

This season he threw for 4,575 yards and 30 touchdowns.

Where Goff’s career over the past three seasons has been on the rise, Stafford’s has been more like a roller coaster. 

Stafford went from 12-5 in 2021 to 3-6 in nine starts in an injury-plagued 2022 season, to 9-6 this year in 15 starts. The Rams were 1-1 without him this season.

In his three seasons with the Rams he has thrown for 10,938 yards and 75 touchdowns so both teams have prospered from that trade.

Now the two teams meet with playoff survival the main goal. 

On paper, the Lions might be the better team. They are 12-5, the Rams are 10-7. 

Both teams can run the ball. Second-year running back Kyren Williams has blossomed for the Rams this season, gaining 1,144 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Gibbs and David Montgomery provide a one-two punch for the Lions on the ground. Montgomery finished the season with 1,015 yards rushing and Gibbs added 945.

Former USC wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown leads the Lions’ receivers with 1,515 yards on 119 catches with 10 touchdowns. Laporta was the team’s second best receiver, but he is doubtful for this week’s game with a knee injury suffered in the Lions final regular season game. That could hurt the Lions.

The Rams have a solid receivers group led by rookie sensation Puka Nacua and veteran Cooper Kupp.

Nacua broke the NFL records for rookie receptions and receiving yards, finishing with  105 catches for 1,486 yards and 6 touchdowns. Kupp missed the early part of the season with a hamstring injury, but finished with 59 catches for 737 yards and 5 touchdowns.

Defensively, the Lions are led by second-year edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, who has 11.5 sacks on the season. Linebacker Alex Anzalone leads the team in tackles with 85.

The Rams went young defensively this season with Kobie Turner, a defensive tackle, and linebacker Bryan Young turning in noteworthy rookie seasons. 

Turner led the team with 9 sacks and Young finished tied with Aaron Donald at second with 8. Donald was double teamed on every play and sometimes had to fight through three blockers to reach the quarterback, which left plenty of openings for Young and Turner.

The game could hinge on how well the Rams’ secondary plays against Goff. Safety Jordan Fuller left last week’s game with the 49ers early and is questionable for the Lions. He was the team’s second leading tackler and also tied for the lead in interceptions with 3.

The Rams’ biggest weakness this season has been special teams and that could come back to haunt them in the playoffs. They went back to place kicker Brent Maher last week after releasing him after seven games. Neither he nor Lucas Havrisik has been consistent on field goals or extra points this year. 

It would be a shame if this game were to be decided by missed kicks. 

The game will take place at 5 p.m. and be televised by NBC’s Sunday night crew.

ON THE REBOUND: Just when we were getting ready to kick dirt on them, the Lakers have rebounded to win two straight games, one of them against their Arena rival the Clippers.

The Lakers defeated the Clippers 106-103 Jan. 7 to snap a four-game losing streak and followed that with a 132-131 win over the Toronto Raptors Jan. 9.

With the two wins, the Lakers evened their record at 19-19, but they still sit at 10th place in the NBA’s Western Conference, which would put them back in the play-in tournament if they stay there. 

Head coach Darvin Ham has replaced D’Angelo Russell in the starting lineup with Austin Reaves in the two wins after Russell missed a few games with injury. Russell scored 13 points in 31 minutes off the bench against the Clippers, 11 points in 17 minutes against the Raptors.

Reaves scored 8 points in 32 minutes against the Clippers and 11 points in 32 minutes against the Raptors, but Reaves plays much better defense than Russell and is less inclined to turnovers than Russell. 

Ham also seems to have settled on a nine-man rotation for the Lakers with Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Christian Wood and Max Christie coming off the bench to rest the starting five of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Cam Reddish, Taurean Prince and Reaves.

That could change once Rui Hachimura and Gabe Vincent are healthy. 

The Lakers are hoping to get well in January. After a game with the Utah Jazz Jan.13 in Salt Lake, they play their next six games at home (the Jan. 23 game with the Clippers is considered an away game) and they don’t have back-to-back games until Jan. 29-30 when they face the Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks in consecutive road games.

Those two games start a five-game road trip that also includes stops in Boston, New York and Charlotte.

Despite their loss to the Lakers, the Clippers are 23-13 and in fourth place in the Western Conference. 

The loss to the Lakers snapped their five-game winning streak, but the Clippers responded with a 138-111 win over the Phoenix Suns Jan. 8. 

It was announced Jan. 10 that they have agreed to a three-year $152 million contract extension with Kawhi Leonard, which will keep him with the team through the 2026-27 season. The team is also in talks with Paul George for a contract extension.