Let's give you the stats for two NFL quarterbacks over the final four regular-season games of 2011:
Quarterback A: 119 completions in 161 attempts for 1,445 yards, 16 touchdowns and three interceptions
Quarterback B: 114 completions in 176 attempts for 1,511 yards, 14 touchdowns, and two interceptions
These are stats for the two quarterbacks who started when the New Orleans Saints defeated the Detroit Lions, 31-17, on Dec. 4 at the Superdome. Believe it or not, Quarterback B — Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford — is perhaps the one NFL quarterback with better stats than Drew Brees over the last month. Brees outdueled Stafford in that last game, but it's also important to remember that defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was serving his two-game suspension and replacement Nick Fairley was injured in the first quarter of the game. The Saints got out to a 17-0 advantage, but the Lions outscored the Saints, 10-7, in the second half.
There's little doubt that Sean Payton and Drew Brees know just how dangerous the Lions could be when the rematch happens on Saturday evening in the wild-card round, but most of the rest of America might see this game as an auto-win for the Saints. Lions head coach Jim Schwartz sees it a little differently, and he pointed to Stafford as the real difference-maker.
"[It] helps having a big-time receiver like Calvin [Johnson] and the other guys on our offense that can make plays for him, but certainly, we feel like we can score points and we've proven that we can come from behind in games," Schwartz said of his quarterback, who threw for 5,038 yards in the 2011 regular season. "I mean, it's not something that we aspire to do. We'd rather play with the lead, but it's obviously something that we can match. Again, this time we get to the playoffs, you take them any way you can. Take them 3-0, take them, 63-62—whatever it is, you take it. But we certainly have confidence in his ability to score along with the other guys on offense."
There had better be a great deal of confidence in Stafford — as well as he's played of late, concern has to remain over the Lions' lack of a dominant (or at times league-average) running game. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has smartly brought short passing plays to tight end Brandon Pettigrew to the fore when short-yardage plays are required in power situations, but there's no doubt that the team will go as far as the passing game and defense take it. Last time the Lions faced the Saints, red zone struggles doomed them, and Schwartz is well aware of that.
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"Yeah, everybody has something they want to do to Calvin, and I think you've seen from us in some of these recent weeks our ability to go to other guys. Guys like Titus Young and Tony Scheffler, and Nate Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew and guys like that. Kevin Smith — Kevin's scored a lot of touchdowns the last few weeks. So, you know, obviously everybody's going to have a plan. I think that there were some situations that we sort of put ourselves in longer yardage situations because of penalties and that's something you certainly can't afford when you're in the red zone. It's something you can't afford when you're in the playoffs."
Especially when facing Brees, who threw for over 400 yards more than Stafford this season, and who Schwartz acknowledges as "the most accurate passer in the NFL. I think statistically that's probably true. He's very good with pocket awareness, he's mobile, but he also moves around the pocket very well. He has weapons around him. He has good tight ends, good receivers, good running backs, good offensive line and I think they all give him a lot of support."
It's a tough battle for a Lions defense that gave up six passing touchdowns to Green Bay Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn in the regular-season finale. It was, according to Schwartz, as bad a defensive performance as he's seen. "Well, we obviously have to play better than that if we want to advance," he said. "You can't ignore it. It certainly happened. I've been a part of times when you've had an effort like that and you just say, 'Hey, that wasn't us,' and you move on; but I think there's obviously things that we need to improve on, including getting some players healthy and getting guys back on the field. I think if we do that we'll play more like we did in the other 15 games than when we did in the finale in Green Bay."
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So, how does one contain Brees? Blitzing is generally out of the question — the Lions don't blitz a lot, anyway, and Brees has seen every possible kind of quarterback pressure. "I think that you have to be able to play man, you have to be able to blitz, you have to be able to play zone," Schwartz said. "I think all of those things are important to be a well-rounded defense. You always hear us talking about being multi-dimensional and there's certainly no excuses that go along with that.
"We've also made a lot of plays in the blitz game. We made a couple games in that game. Unfortunately, two of the touchdowns we gave up [against the Packers] were in blitz. We also gave up a touchdown in Cover 3 and we gave up a touchdown in Cover 4. So however we've got to do it, we don't want to give up touchdowns. We don't blitz a lot, but that's no excuse for not being able to execute when it is called. It's an important weapon and we need to be able to execute it. In those, it really wasn't a schematic execution; it was more of an individual execution when it came to making those plays."
In the end, it's all about execution for these young Lions. They have the talent to be one of the most dangerous teams in the playoffs. The question is whether they'll be more of a danger to themselves than to their opponents. Schwartz believes that he's seen a sea change in his team ever since that Dec. 4 Superdome game.
"I hope every game we mature a little bit more. We all get one more day older, so you know, I think that anytime you have experience going somewhere and doing something… That was our first Sunday night primetime game. We had had our first Monday night home game here for a long time. There are situations that come up that we responded well, others that we didn't, but I think that we certainly learned from some of those things in the past and expect to play better the next time they come around.
"Obviously this is a playoff game, it's going to be a national game, it's a primetime game, you know, those are sort of sidebars to the New Orleans Saints and the challenges they bring, but they're facts that are there. We're going to be on the road at a loud stadium and you know, an environment that we've been in before, and you'd expect to play better the second time."
From expectation to reality? If everyone else plays like "Quarterback B," it could happen.
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