When the Detroit Lions drafted Matthew Stafford in 2009, Detroit was coming off an 0-16 season. Five years later, the shadow of those days has dissipated, and the Lions are an 11-win team. Now another shadow has emerged: Stafford is a guy who can win in Detroit, but he's also developing a reputation as a guy who can't win the toughest games in Detroit.
Since he arrived in the Motor City, Stafford's Lions are 3-31 against teams that finish with a winning record. They are 0-17 against those teams on the road. Eleven wins is the mark of a good team, but that new 0-for is a warning that Stafford can only get the Lions so far.
More evidence came last Sunday, as Stafford looked shaky bordering on skittish. He was 20-for-41 against the rival Green Bay Packers, including some throws that didn't come anywhere near their targets. It was his third straight game throwing for less than 250 yards. The Lions had the better defense; the Packers had the better passer, even though he was operating on one fully functional leg.
Even more troubling is that Stafford hasn't improved with the return of Calvin Johnson from injury. He had three games with no touchdown throws since his favorite receiver returned from a three-game absence in Week 10, and only two 300-yard passing games (one against the woeful Chicago Bears). Golden Tate, meanwhile, has only one touchdown since Johnson returned.
There are fewer excuses for Stafford than in the past. The Lions used to have holes at running back. Now, Joique Bell and Theo Riddick have shored up the team's rushing depth. The Lions used to have a wretched secondary putting Stafford in bad spots. No longer, with Glover Quin making the Pro Bowl and Darius Slay emerging as a solid player. And last year's thinness at wide receiver has been fixed with Tate's addition and the drafting of Eric Ebron at tight end. The Lions have morphed from a team being shepherded along by a young quarterback to a team ready for its veteran quarterback to lead them to playoff success.
Can Stafford do it?
That 0-17 road record against winning teams is troubling, since the best quarterbacks win playoff games on the road. That has almost been a rite of passage in the playoffs: Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco all lifting teams with so-so records to championships by winning in hostile places. There haven't been many indoor quarterbacks to win Super Bowls, either. Drew Brees stayed inside for his title run, and we all know Peyton Manning's struggles in cold weather situations. Stafford hasn't been compared to those quarterbacks, but he'll have to win in places like Green Bay and Seattle if that status is ever to be reached.
The caveat for Stafford skeptics is that he's only 26, and has already lived up to those No. 1 overall hopes. He's not a bust; he's a reliable starter in a league where those are rare. Sunday will mark his second playoff appearances for a team that has had one playoff victory since before John F. Kennedy took office. The trajectory is easy to believe in when the trajectory starts at zero. But at some point, a plateau appears and Stafford is in danger of reaching it.
Stafford had his usual folksy cheer on Wednesday when he faced the media, shrugging off any concerns about his reputation.
"I got criticized when I was throwing for 4,000 yards and not winning games," he said. "You're gonna get criticized, and if you try to make everybody happy, it's gonna be a long day for you. We got 11 wins this year and I'm pretty fired up about that."
True enough, yet it felt for the first time in Stafford's career that the bulk of the team's wins came because of the other side of the ball. The Lions' defense kept the team in games long enough for Stafford to morph into his fourth-quarter self and win the game with laser-like throws that don't seem to appear frequently until it's clutch time. Perhaps that's a sign that Stafford needs a more wide-open offense earlier in games, but then again he's had more aggressive offenses before in his career and they still tend to sputter against strong road opponents.
One notable improvement: Stafford's rate of mistakes has fallen, especially since last season. Although his touchdown passes have dropped from 29 to 22, his interception count has dropped by the same amount: from 19 to a career-low 12. "I like to think I'm better at doing what it takes to win games rather than throwing for a million yards," he said Wednesday.
He may very well have to "do what it takes to win games" and "throw for a million yards" on Sunday. The Cowboys' offense has a bunch of options, so a low-scoring game is unlikely. "Can't kick field goals against a team like this," Stafford said. "You gotta score touchdowns."
The game is certainly winnable: the Cowboys' pass defense not outstanding, ranked 26th in the league. The game is indoors, not far from where Stafford grew up. Center Dominic Raiola is back after a one-game suspension, and Ndamukong Suh is back after his one-game non-suspension. The Cowboys' pass rush isn't as ferocious as others Stafford faced this season, as only four teams in the league have fewer sacks. And, for what it's worth, the only other Lions playoff win since 1957 came in 1992 against Dallas.
Lions fans cling to that game even now, a fading memory of a team that thrilled an entire region. A win Sunday would lift Stafford to a special place in Detroit lore, even though it's just one win.
A loss, however, would bring Stafford's new shadow even closer.