February 23, 2024

Matthew Stafford placed his right foot gingerly on a step up to the podium and winced through a smile. He did the same on the way down.

A few minutes earlier, the Rams’ veteran quarterback had completed the latest chapter in his streak of dramatic victories at Lucas Oil Stadium.

And it was all the more impressive because he did it Sunday with a bum right hip.

Stafford’s touchdown pass to rookie Puka Nacua in overtime gave the Rams a 29-23 victory over the Indianapolis Colts and marked the third time in as many games at the venue that Stafford worked his magic.

“I was really happy to get the shot,” Stafford said.

Stafford got his opportunity after the Rams blew a 23-0 lead and failed to put the game away late in the fourth quarter.

But just as he did in 2016 with the Detroit Lions and in 2021 with the Rams — and 43 times during his 14-plus NFL seasons — Stafford led his team to victory with a game-winning drive.

Nacua’s game-winning play — the first touchdown of his career — was his last of nine catches for 163 yards receiving. Through four games, the fifth-round draft pick has 39 receptions for 510 yards, both NFL rookie records.

Running back Kyren Williams posted the first 100-yard game of his career, gaining 103 yards and scoring two touchdowns in 25 carries.

But it was Stafford who ultimately came through with a performance that helped the Rams end a two-game losing streak and even their record at 2-2.

That’s not bad. And not great.

But it’s better than most anticipated.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford throws the ball as he is hit by  Colts defensive end Dayo Odeyingbo.

Rams Matthew Stafford stayed in the game despite suffering some hits and wounds from Dayo Odeyingbo (54) and the rest of the Colts.

(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

So give the Rams credit. Also hold off on those reservations for Las Vegas, site of Super Bowl LVIII.

Had the Rams fallen to 1-3, it would not be too early to start speculating about players that will be made available at the trade deadline.

For now, the Rams cannot be ruled out as an early playoff contender.

After consecutive trips to the Eastern Time Zone — one game played late in Cincinnati and one played early in Indianapolis to test players’ body clocks — the Rams will return to the comfort of SoFi Stadium for three consecutive games against the Philadelphia Eagles, Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Star receiver Cooper Kupp is scheduled to begin practice this week. His return from injured reserve because of a hamstring injury could come as soon as the game against the Eagles.

But coach Sean McVay was not looking ahead.

“Was it perfect, no?” McVay said of the s victory Sunday. “But man, you can really learn a lot. But it’s a lot easier to learn after you find a way to just stay the course and figure out a way to kind of piece it together at the right times.”

The Rams led, 20-0, at halftime. They fell apart after increasing the lead to 23-0 early in the third quarter.

Colts quarterback Anthony Richardson passed for two touchdowns and two two-point conversions and ran for a touchdown to tie the score with just under two minutes left in regulation.

Stafford, who said he suffered the right hip injury in the third quarter when a Colts defensive player fell on him, got two chances to engineer scoring drives but the Rams fell short, sending the game into overtime.

Receiver Ben Skowronek correctly called tails on the coin flip, giving Stafford a third chance to win the game.

“We put the game in his hands,” McVay said of Stafford.

Stafford, 35, willed his way through the second half. He said the hip issue “was kind of just shutting down my leg.” But he “kept it warm” on the sideline between series after he was initially injured.

“It just started chirping right then, kind of just shouting at me a little bit,” he said.

But when the Rams got the ball to start overtime, Rams players said there was no doubt Stafford would come through.

“He’s done this for a long time,” receiver Van Jefferson said, “and you can just tell he’s got a straight dawg mentality. … When you need [No.] 9, he’s going to be there.”

Said Nacua: “Just the confidence that oozes out of him.”

 Rams running back Kyren Williams runs  against the Indianapolis Colts.

Rams running back Kyren Williams scored two more touchdowns and rushed for 103 yards against the Colts.

(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

Stafford started overtime by completing a 20-yard pass to Nacua. Three runs by Williams and two by Ronnie Rivers moved the ball to the Colts’ 22-yard line.

One play later, Stafford found a wide-open Nacua in the middle of the field.

“It felt like a little bit of a blown coverage,” Stafford said. “I felt like I’m looking down the middle going, ‘Man, I’m not seeing somebody in there.’

“Threw it a little bit higher just thinking somebody was standing there — and there wasn’t.”

Nacua also was surprised to be alone.

“I turned around and I was like, ‘Wait, there’s nobody there … I was in shock as well.”

Nacua caught the ball and ran into the end zone, starting a celebration by Rams players.

Nacua aimed to atone for an earlier mistake when he missed a blocking assignment that resulted in Stafford suffering the hip injury.

“It’s like a video game — you keep pausing when you’re losing so you make sure that you get the right play at the very end,” Nacua said. “It was sweet.”

Stafford completed 27 of 40 passes for 319 yards, with an interception.

But it was his final pass to Nacua that will reverberate as the Rams move ahead.

“He delivered in a big way,” McVay said, “with a vintage performance that’s in alignment with who he’s been throughout his career.”

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