For the third straight Sunday, the Lions trailed at home in the fourth quarter. For the third straight Sunday, the Lions rallied to win behind a quarterback who has been at his career best without one of the best receivers of recent history.
Why, I asked Matthew Stafford on Sunday, have you survived so well without Johnson?
“Hard work,” he said from Detroit an hour after his perfectly placed 18-yard dart to Anquan Boldin beat Washington, to the delight of Ford Field gone mad. “Not only by myself, but by my receivers, my teammates. One player doesn’t make a team. Football’s such a great team game. These new guys have come in and worked and proven they’re pretty good football players.”
We’ll get to how good Stafford’s been in the clutch, and overall. But there’s something to what he says. Let’s look at the way human nature works. You have a superstar. He’s humble, he’s always good, he’s a great force, and he’s consistently productive. That’s what Calvin Johnson was. But there’s also part of a team with a superstar, regardless whether he stomps his feet when he doesn’t get the ball or not, that is a bit burdensome. (Johnson didn’t stomp his feet, by the way.) A quarterback starts to think, Gotta get the ball to Calvin, instead of thinking only what he should be thinking: Hit the open guy.
So for proof, look at the receivers: Marvin Jones, 33 catches; Anquan Boldin, 32 catches; Golden Tate, 31 catches; Theo Riddick (hurt the past two weeks), 26 catches. Stafford’s been an equal-opportunity thrower, and therefore, the 4-3 Lions are in the pennant race with the season nearing the halfway point.
Stafford, who is still just 28, is having the best season of his life: a 105.7 rating, 68 percent completions, with a 15-to-4 touchdown-to-interception differential. Sunday was the 100th game of his career, and he sounded part exhilarated, part drained when it was over.
“Getting to 100 games in this league is pretty special for any player, and certainly for me, and winning it the way we did was pretty awesome,” he said. “Happy to come out a victor in such a big game, such an important game for us.”
When you watch the Lions now, you just expect Stafford to do very big things at the end. Look what he’s done on the three-game home stand that ended Sunday:
• Week 5 versus Philadelphia: Down 23-21 with 2:34 left in the fourth quarter. Stafford leads a 34-yard field goal drive to win, 24-23.
• Week 6 versus Los Angeles: Down 28-21 with 14 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Stafford leads an 84-yard touchdown drive and a 44-yard field goal drive to win, 31-28.
• Week 7 versus Washington: Down 17-13 with 1:05 left in the fourth quarter. Stafford leads a 65-yard drive, finishing with an 18-yard strike to Boldin to win, 20-17.
“At a point of the game like this one,” Stafford said, referring to the play that won Sunday’s game, “no one’s going to be open, really. Somebody’s gotta make a great play. It’s been interesting playing with Anquan. My parents both went to Florida State, so when I was a kid, I was a huge Florida State fan. And he’s got a few years on me, so I rooted for Florida State and I rooted for Anquan. But here, he just got vertical and made a great play on the ball.”
Stafford made a superb throw, too, inches from the fingertips of Washington linebacker Will Compton. With cornerback Kendall Fuller hanging onto him, Boldin caught the ball for the winner. “Somebody’s gotta make a great play,” Stafford said, “and he did. “We just went crazy. What’s been great about playing with him is he trusts me, and I trust him.”
That left Stafford, in his past 13 games, with 32 touchdowns and five interceptions. He’s efficient, not forcing the ball, and not relying on any single player. At 28, he’s never played better. “There’s a little left in the tank,” he said wearily. “I feel I’m doing all the the little things I need to do to get better, and I still have a ways to go to get better.”
Back-to-back road contests—at Houston, at Minnesota—the next two weeks will provide more chances for Stafford and the Lions to continue to improve.