Cover-Two: Is Matthew Stafford to blame for the Lions' struggles?

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Could the Dolphins frustrate Peyton Manning enough for an upset?
Friday November 21st, 2014

Week 11 may have gone a long way toward sorting out the playoff picture, but as the Raiders' upset win over the Chiefs on Thursday night proved, an entire season's fortunes can turn on one bad night in the NFL. In this week's Cover-Two, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar discuss whether Matthew Stafford is most responsible for the Lions' offensive inconsistency, which 5-5 AFC team has the best shot at the playoffs and which matchup excites them most in a Week 12 slate with only a few games featuring two winning teams.

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True or false: Matthew Stafford is to blame for the Lions' offensive struggles.

Chris Burke: False ... but not entirely false, if that makes sense. Stafford probably should be doing more, considering that the Lions continue to stockpile weapons for him in an offense built around the pass. But statistically, Stafford actually is right on pace or ahead of what he did in 2012 or '13, and he has come up with some huge plays, like his late touchdown toss to Theo Riddick against Miami.

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He deserves some of the blame, without question. The bigger fault in Detroit lies both in front of and behind Stafford on the field, with the offensive line and running backs. The protection hasn't been there -- Stafford has been sacked 31 times -- and neither has the run-pass balance that Detroit enjoyed last season. Right now, the Lions rank 30th in yards rushing at less than 80 yards per game.

Running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell have bounced in and out of the lineup, and there's been an unsettled situation at right tackle all season. More consistency in the trenches would help make Detroit's quarterback look more comfortable.

Certainly, Stafford must be better than he was in a 14-6 loss to Arizona last Sunday if the Lions are to win the NFC North or claim a wild card. Pinning all of the blame on him, though, is overlooking Detroit's more pressing concerns.

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Doug Farrar: True ... to a point. I think he's a lot of the problem, and that's going to happen when a team has a new offensive coordinator and his quarterback has a lot of random and inconsistent elements to his game. It certainly hasn't helped that Calvin Johnson has been injured through parts of the season, but Joe Lombardi's greatest challenge has been syncing up the more precise elements of his schemes with a quarterback who has generally been given leave to improvise in ways that have been both beneficial and dangerous. Stafford has an unbelievable arm, there's no question about that, but that arm has put him in as much trouble as it's helped him. He's been allowed to throw from awkward release points and move through odd mechanical streaks and slumps before throwing his way out of them.

The focus is also different now because under defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, the Lions have a great defense for the first time in Stafford's career, and with that comes a new level of expectation. That's where Stafford will have to step up and be more consistent play-to-play.

This week, Lombardi has said that he may not have as many plays in his quiver as the Lions prepare to play the Patriots, which seems a sure sign that coach and quarterback are not quite on the same page. Stafford has all the talent required to make this work; it may just be a matter of time.

Which 5-5 team is more likely to make the playoffs: Buffalo or Houston?

Burke: Simply by virtue of circumstance, the answer is Houston. The Bills' dream of division contention was extinguished several weeks ago, and they're left with a remaining schedule featuring home games against Cleveland and Denver and road trips to Green Bay and New England. Their defense continues to play well enough, but the Bills' offense is still lagging far too much to project a 4-2 or 5-1 finish.

Meanwhile, Houston has the good fortune of playing in the AFC South, where a flawed Colts team clings to the lead at 6-4. The Texans have four games left within that division: two against the Jaguars, one against Tennessee and a road trip to Indianapolis. It's a long shot, but a sweep probably gives them the division crown.

Quarterback remains an unknown quantity for the Texans, even in light of Ryan Mallett's solid Week 11 debut. There is enough talent elsewhere, from the run game to the receivers to possible league MVP J.J. Watt, for Houston to scrap together a few more wins. That might be all it takes in the South.

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Farrar: Houston, and it has more to do with the strength of the AFC South than anything else. If the Bills are going to earn a wild card, they'll have to get past the 6-4 Dolphins in the AFC East, and Miami looks like the stronger team right now. The Texans are one game behind the 6-4 Colts for the division lead, and those two teams face off on Dec. 14. The Bills are trying to squeak by with Kyle Orton under center, while the Texans have taken the step to start Ryan Mallett. We know what Orton is and is not; we're still waiting to see what Mallett's upside is. And if Mallett proves capable of matching his estimable arm with some level of efficiency and consistency, it's not out of the question for the Texans to get on a roll and take the division.

Which Week 12 matchup are you most excited to watch?

Burke: Dolphins at Broncos. A fruit basket should be en route from the Mile High City to Oakland right about now, as a thank you for the Raiders' Thursday night win over Kansas City. With that, the Broncos are temporarily back in control of the AFC West.

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Can they stay there? The reigning conference champs have appeared vulnerable two of the past three weeks in losses at New England and at St. Louis. Just like that, the Broncos have slipped from odds-on AFC favorites to fighting for their lives in the division.

Miami could actually pull ahead of Denver in the wild-card race with a win Sunday -- both teams would be 7-4, with the Dolphins holding the head-to-head tiebreaker. Don't sleep on the Dolphins' chances of pulling that off, either. Their only two losses since the beginning of October have come via late collapses against Green Bay and Detroit. Miami is a couple incompletions from an 8-2 record and first place in the AFC East.

It's been the defense leading the way. Miami ranks fourth in points allowed and second in yards, buoyed by the Cameron Wake-led front. The trick to stifling Peyton Manning always has been to disrupt the pocket and force him from his comfort zone. Wake and company might be able to do that and turn Sunday's game into a slugfest.

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Farrar: The Dolphins are starting to get credit for the outstanding defense they're putting on the field, and they'll get a lot more hype if they can take down a Denver offense that has struggled of late. Over his last three games, Peyton Manning's numbers have been decidedly pedestrian -- 99 completions in 155 attempts for 1,167 yards, eight touchdowns and six interceptions, two in each game.

The Miami defense is not the kind you want to try and get back on track against, either -- Miami currently ranks third in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted defensive metrics, and cornerback Brent Grimes has been particularly effective this season. Denver's offensive line has been an issue all season, and Miami has the defensive front to take advantage of that.

A side note to this game is how well Denver's defense is performing -- Ryan Tannehill will have his hands full, and it's certainly the first time in recent memory that a defense is outperforming an offense on a team with Peyton Manning at quarterback.

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