The Miseducation of Matthew Stafford
Maybe it’s too late for this season. Maybe Matthew Stafford and the Lions did too much self-inflected damage with their 18-16 home loss to the Ravens last Monday night.
Once in the driver’s seat for the NFC North title at 6-3, the Lions now need the near impossible after losing four of their past five. They have to win out, and have both Green Bay and Chicago lose once down the stretch. Considering the Bears and Packers meet in the season finale, the Lions need the winner of that game to lose this weekend. Got it?
So, yes, it may be too late for the Lions. Just like always for the team that’s never made a Super Bowl, and only appeared in one conference championship game in the Super Bowl era (a 41-10 loss to Washington in the 1991 season).
And it may be too late for coach Jim Schwartz, who probably needs a playoff berth to be back next season.
But even though it seems like everyone wants to write Schwartz's career obituary—too much careless gunslinger, not enough smart play when the team needs it—it’s not too late for Matthew Stafford.
There’s no question he hasn’t been good of late. In the six games since the Lions’ bye week, Stafford has completed just 51 percent of his passes, lost two fumbles and thrown 11 interceptions against 12 touchdowns. There’s no denying that Stafford has much to learn, about his footwork, arm angle and the concept of risk and reward. But he has more time.
Not a whole lot more, but some. Just look at the recent Super Bowl winners at quarterback. Joe Flacco and Aaron Rodgers were 27 when they broke through. Drew Brees was 30. Eli and Peyton Manning were 26 and 30, respectively. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady won for the first time at 23 and 24, but they had defenses that the team was built around.
We have seen the potential of Stafford. In 2011, he completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 5,036 yards and threw 41 touchdowns with 16 interceptions. In clinching the team’s first playoff berth since 1999, Stafford was exquisite against the Chargers: 29 of 36 for 373 yards and three touchdowns.
Is greatness in Stafford? Impossible to say at this point. But now comes the proving time. "It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up," Vince Lombardi famously once said.
Stafford has certainly fallen down this season. But the great thing about football is there’s always another game on Sunday to change the narrative, until there isn’t. The Lions have two games to play against the porous Giants and Vikings. Rolling over those two teams won’t prove anything, and in fact it would probably only inflame the chorus that Stafford can get it done except when the games really matter.
Next season will be vitally important to Stafford. There’s a reasonable chance the Lions will have a new coach—Schwartz is the only coach Stafford has known. Maybe somebody else can make Stafford believe that just because he put up great numbers in ’11, it doesn’t mean he has all the answers. Stafford still has time to heed those lessons, but it’s going to run out eventually.
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The one-on-one battle to watch closely in Week 16:
Texans DT J.J. Watt vs. Broncos RG Louis Vasquez
Watt is simply the best defensive player in the game, regardless of his official stats and the Texans’ freefall. He has been terrific this season, and should win his second-straight Defensive Player of the Year award if the voters truly give it to the league’s best defender. Watt could throw a wrench in the Broncos’ postseason plans if he’s allowed to harass Peyton Manning all game. That’s why it’s very important that Vasquez performs well in this game. He’s been outstanding the entire season, and won his recent battle with Titans standout DT Jurrell Casey.
Last week’s verdict:
Colts OLB Robert Mathis vs. Texans LT Duane Brown
Robert Mathis had a huge strip/sack fumble for a safety, but that wasn’t the fault of Brown. Brown did his job setting the edge and forcing Mathis to go deep and around the quarterback—it’s just that Case Keenum ran into the sack when he tried to make a play after holding the ball. Brown’s charged with a hit there, but not a sack. Brown gave up a legit hit later in the game when Mathis beat him on an inside spin move.
All in all, we’d have to give a slight edge to Brown, who rebounded after an uncharacteristic poor game against the Jaguars.
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FIVE BOLD PREDICTIONS FOR WEEK 16
1. Aldon Smith will have a huge game. Since returning from a stay in a treatment center, the 49ers’ outside linebacker has been outstanding in all facets of the game—much better than before his sabbatical. This week, Smith gets to face off against Falcons second-year left tackle Lamar Holmes, who has struggled mightily. Danger Matt Ryan, danger.
2. The Dolphins are in for a battle in Buffalo. Doesn’t really matter that Thaddeus Lewis will start at quarterback for E.J. Manuel—this Bills team is all about its defense. Buffalo is third in our pass-rush rankings: Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams and Mario Williams have all been very productive. Add in the play of cornerback Stephon Gilmore, and the Dolphins are going to find tough sledding on offense if the defense isn’t creating turnovers.
3. Jordy Nelson will go nuts. The Steelers have had an awful time generating pressure on the quarterback (tied for 27th in our rankings) and are going against the fourth-most efficient pass-blocking unit. That means Packers quarterback Matt Flynn will have time to throw, and he’ll find a very favorable matchup in Nelson against Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor.
4. Elvis Dumervil will deliver vs. the Patriots. Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil hasn’t been talked about much this season, but he is The MMQB top edge pass rusher for the season according to Pressure Points Rate. He may "only" have 9.5 sacks, but Dumervil does a terrific job creating pressure with hurries, hits and sack assists. Dumervil will be going against Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon. This is actually a good matchup for Cannon, as he’s better against quickness than strength. But Dumervil is a crafty veteran who will find a way in a big game.
5. Lance Briggs will be a huge boost for Bears. The linebacker has missed the past eight weeks with a shoulder fracture and the defense, especially against the run, has suffered. Briggs is expected to return this week, and his appearance can’t come soon enough. Chicago needs all the help it can get against the run and the Eagles’ LeSean McCoy.