Do you remember where you were on March 18, 2021? You can bet that Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford do. That's the day the Pro Bowl quarterbacks swapped teams in a blockbuster trade that would go on to rewrite the state and future of two franchises.
At the time, and certainly a year after the Rams shipped Goff to the Lions in the deal that netted Stafford, you would've been hard-pressed to find an NFL expert who didn't view Los Angeles as the clear winner. While Goff arrived in Detroit with twice as many playoff starts as Stafford, many considered the latter to be the superior player, and those opinions were all but validated when Stafford helped lead the Rams to an instant Super Bowl title in 2021.
But here we are, two more years down the road, and this trade has unfolded in NFL playoffs than Stafford's Rams against Goff's upstart Lions.-- so much so that there is perhaps no greater anticipated game to start the 2023
How did we get here? How have each of the QBs progressed -- or otherwise -- since their respective relocations? And which big-name signal-caller has the edge for Sunday night's prime-time showdown? Let's get to it.
The 2021 trade (and its immediate results)
QB Jared Goff, 2022 first-round pick, 2023 first-round pick, 2021 third-round pick
QB Matthew Stafford
When the Rams struck this deal, it was widely seen as an unlikely but admirable maneuver out of Goff's $134 million contract, which he'd just signed two years prior. Goff experienced an early-career revival under coach Sean McVay, helping guide the Rams to Super Bowl LI in 2018, but he regressed thereafter, throwing 29 interceptions in a skittish decline from 2019-2020. Stafford, meanwhile, was widely viewed as a superior gunslinger who'd simply lacked a dynamite supporting cast over 12 years in Detroit.
This, therefore, was deemed an "all-in" move by the Rams to get over the hump, and it indisputably paid off, with Stafford posting MVP-caliber numbers -- 41 touchdowns, 17 picks and a 102.9 passer rating -- in his L.A. debut. Better yet, the longtime Lions QB turned it up a notch in the playoffs, going 4-0 with nine TDs, three picks and a 70% completion mark en route to a Super Bowl victory over the Bengals. That alone virtually sealed the Rams as "winners," because no one can ever erase that trophy.
But with three seasons post-trade now in the books, the QBs' numbers indicate Detroit should be almost equally as pleased. Here's how both Stafford and Goff have fared over the course of their tenures with the Rams and Lions, respectively:
The numbers since the trade
Do the Rams (and Stafford) still have the leg up, in the grand scheme of things? Sure. The 2021 finish cannot be overstated. In 50 years, NFL fans looking back on history are guaranteed to see Stafford and the Rams etched in as Super Bowl champions. But Detroit's bet was always on a longer-term restructuring. Many shrugged off Goff as an apparent throwaway in the deal -- a big-name salary dump -- even as Lions general manager Brad Holmes insisted Goff was more than just a "bridge" at QB. Many wondered when the Lions would repackage the picks accumulated in the Stafford deal to draft or acquire a "true" successor.
Instead, Detroit kept building around Goff, including with 2023 rookies Jahmyr Gibbs and Sam LaPorta, both of whom were drafted with picks stemming from the Stafford deal. And the result? Goff, while still hunting his own Lombardi Trophy, has been just as, if not more, steady than Stafford since their swap, and he's played a major hand in Detroit earning a home playoff game for the first time in 30 years. The statistical breakdown, excluding postseason marks, is really quite comparable.
Stafford has a slightly better record, but he's also played seven fewer games due to injury. Always known for a strong arm, Stafford's also pushed the ball downfield at a better rate, throwing nearly as many TDs and averaging more yards per attempt in fewer contests. Goff, meanwhile, has controlled the ball better and owns a slight advantage in accuracy, completing 66.5% of his passes to Stafford's 65.7%. Even their supporting casts have fluctuated similarly, albeit in different orders. Stafford thrived with an all-star lineup in 2021, only to weather an injury-riddled setup the following year; while Goff started slowly amid a rebuild, only to rediscover Pro Bowl-caliber composure with younger weapons starting in 2022.
The playoff showdown: Who has the edge?
Now it all comes down to this. In truth, the Goff-Stafford trade conversation goes well beyond this Sunday's matchup. But don't tell that to Lions and Rams fans, who will be craving a chance to add bragging rights in this saga.
Which side has more reason to go into the Super Wild Card Weekend matchup with confidence? Fitting to the rest of the conversation, it's a remarkably close call. Goff has been higher variance in terms of home versus road games in 2023, posting a 107.9 QB rating at Ford Field as opposed to an 89.4 rating elsewhere, so that suggests he'll benefit more from the environment. But it's not like Ford Field is foreign territory for Stafford; the only difference will be a crowd roaring against him.
Both the Lions and Rams rank in the bottom half of the NFL in defense (Detroit is No. 19, Los Angeles No. 20), sacks and pressure rate (Detroit No. 22, Los Angeles No. 23), and both clubs also boast elite weapons out wide, so neither Goff nor Stafford should have trouble moving the chains through the air. Both teams are also well-equipped to support their QBs on the ground, with Kyren Williams emerging as a workhorse for L.A. and the Gibbs-David Montgomery combo working well for Detroit.
So where might they separate? While Stafford is generally viewed as the bigger risk-taker, Goff's turnovers have come in waves; he's had eight in his last seven weeks, and all eight were confined to three games. Perhaps uncoincidentally, those games are also Detroit's only three losses since late October. Enter Aaron Donald, the longtime anchor of L.A.'s defense. At 32, he remains a wrecking ball on the interior, leading the Rams with 23 QB hits. Sharp as he may be when protected, Goff has proven over his career to be more affected by pressure than most QBs, meaning Donald could pose serious issues for his ex-teammate.
The Lions could certainly counter this by working to establish the run early, or flexing their trademark aggression on key short-yardage downs. Both QBs will obviously be motivated to edge their old teams. But if we had to take a side in this battle of signal-callers, we'd lean slightly toward the man Detroit dealt almost three years ago. Regardless, it should come down to the wire.