NFL Winners and Losers: Time to place Matthew Stafford among NFL's best

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It only seems like Matthew Stafford has been quarterback of the Detroit Lions forever.

Stafford is still fairly young. He’s 28. Sunday’s game was his 100th NFL start. We expect instant results from our quarterbacks, but players are still allowed to improve at age 28.

Stafford has improved, and it’s about time we place Stafford in one of the NFL’s top quarterback tiers. He has played very well for almost a full calendar year, and he led yet another comeback win on Sunday. His rapid improvement couldn’t have come at a better time for the Lions, who lost future Hall-of-Fame receiver Calvin Johnson to retirement this past offseason. It’s Stafford’s team now, and he has responded well to that.

The Lions are on a three-game winning streak and Stafford is the biggest reason. He has eight touchdowns and no interceptions during this win streak. And on Sunday he had another late-game drive to get the Lions a big 20-17 win.

The Lions took over at their own 25 with 1:05 to play. Stafford hit Marvin Jones for 23 yards, he ran for 14 and then found Andre Roberts for 20 more. The Lions faced third-and-10 after that, but Stafford fired a fastball to Anquan Boldin for an 18-yard touchdown with 16 seconds left.

Stafford has always been good under pressure late in games. Sunday was his 21st time leading a fourth-quarter comeback win, according to pro-football-reference.com. That’s tied for 20th in NFL history. He has 23 game-winning drives since 2011, three more than any other quarterback in that time, according to NFL Research. Stafford has led a game-winning drive in all four Lions wins this season.

What has changed is Stafford is becoming more reliable for all 60 minutes, not just a frenetic drive at the end. He has cut down significantly on his mistakes. He has just four interceptions this season, and two came during a bad game against the Chicago Bears. That was Stafford’s only multi-interception game since last Nov. 1. In his last 15 games, Stafford has 4,093 yards, 34 touchdowns and six interceptions. Those numbers put him among the best quarterbacks in the league. That’s not debatable.

What has been even more impressive about Stafford’s latest hot streak is he is carrying the offense. The running game is a mess, with Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick out with injuries. Tight end Eric Ebron is an important piece to the offense because the Lions can use him in various ways, and he has missed two games in a row. It hasn’t mattered for Stafford.

The Lions roster, especially the past couple weeks with some injuries, doesn’t look like it belongs to a playoff contender. But Stafford is doing his best to make the Lions a contender.

At one point, Stafford and Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler were considered to be practically the same player. They were both quarterbacks with big arms (and big contracts) who never seemed like they could eliminate killer mistakes, which often happened because of sloppy mechanics. Their paths have gone in much different directions. The Bears seem to be done with Cutler, who is injured. The Lions are far from done with Stafford. What they should see from Stafford at this point is a franchise quarterback who is only 28 years old. That’s hard to come by in the NFL.

Stafford was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, and even as recently as last November there were serious questions about how good he could be. It took a while, but Stafford is finally living up to his full promise.

Matthew Stafford led a game-winning drive in the final minute to beat Washington (AP)
Matthew Stafford led a game-winning drive in the final minute to beat Washington (AP)

Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 7 of the NFL season:

WINNERS

Andrew Luck: Luck isn’t perfect, but he’s all the Indianapolis Colts have. And he kept the Colts relevant this season by carrying them to a win on Sunday.

The Colts trailed late, and a loss to the Tennessee Titans would have dropped them to 2-5. Luck wouldn’t let it happen. On third-and-13 in the fourth quarter, with the Colts trailing 23-20, Luck avoided the rush and made an unbelievable throw to Devin Street for 20 yards.

After a false start turned a third-and-goal at the 2-yard line into third-and-goal at the 7 later in the drive, Luck found Jack Doyle in the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown. The Colts scored a defensive touchdown after that, and they won 34-26.

Luck finished 27 of 39 for 353 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. While a 3-4 record isn’t ideal for the Colts, their quarterback always gives them some hope for better days ahead. Sunday was one of Luck’s finest days.

A.J. Green: Green has always been one of the best receivers in the NFL, but this season he’s making a case that he’s the best, period.

Green’s incredible touchdown catch on a Hail Mary in Sunday’s win over the Cleveland Browns was just one play in another huge game. He had eight catches for 169 yards. It was his third game of at least 169 yards this season. He has 50 catches for 775 yards after just seven games.

And if the Hail Mary wasn’t enough, he had another one-handed catch that on any other day would have been his No. 1 highlight.

San Diego Chargers: Everyone will argue about Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn’s decision to go for it on fourth down in overtime, but what’s lost is the Chargers defense made a great play to get the stop. It was a clutch play for a team that knows all about being on the wrong end of close losses.

San Diego has not let a brutal start to the season affect it. The Chargers had some ridiculous losses and plenty of key players go to injured reserve, but they’ve won two in a row to get back to 3-4. Sunday’s win on the road against a good Falcons team was impressive. They came back after falling behind 27-10 in the first half.

If the Chargers can just avoid any more insane losses, maybe they can get in the AFC playoff race. Even though coach Mike McCoy gets criticized a lot, give him credit for keeping the Chargers on the right path through adversity.

Marquette King: The Oakland Raiders punter is one of the best at his position, and maybe he could pick out some other positions to try too. Because on an impromptu run in the fourth quarter, King looked like he has some good wheels.

King anticipated a block coming, so he just tucked the ball and ran. And he ran fast. The 27-yard gain was the low point of a bad day for the Jaguars (more on them in a bit) but a fun highlight for a Raiders team that is 5-2 and the only NFL team that has banked four road wins.

LOSERS

Gus Bradley’s job security: If the Jacksonville Jaguars were going to make something of their season, they probably had to win on Sunday. They faced a good-but-not-great Oakland Raiders team at home. And the Jaguars looked awful.

The moment the Jaguars gave up on their season came with a little less than 10 minutes remaining and Jacksonville trailing 26-9. The Jaguars had fourth-and-6 at their own 40, and they punted. Instead of trying to give his team every chance to come back from three possessions down, Bradley practically waved the white flag. It’s not a good look.

The whole game wasn’t pretty. It was downright ugly when Malik Jackson and Jalen Ramsey were ejected in the fourth quarter. Jackson picked up two unsportsmanlike penalties, the second of which appeared to be for yelling at an official, and two unsportsmanlike penalties is grounds for ejection starting this season. Ramsey was ejected for fighting.

Not only was the Jaguars’ performance embarrassing, they added onto that by losing their cool at the end. At 2-4, Bradley better start putting some wins together fast. Winning on Thursday night against the Tennessee Titans would be wise.

That big New England-Buffalo showdown next week: Next week’s New England Patriots game at the Buffalo Bills looked like a good one. For a little bit, it seemed like the Bills could compete with the Patriots in the AFC East. They already had a win in hand over New England, after getting lucky and catching the Patriots when Jacoby Brissett had to start at quarterback.

After the Bills’ dreadful loss at the Miami Dolphins, there isn’t as much drama for next Sunday’s game anymore. The Bills lost 28-25. It’s tough to say what play summed up their miserable day better.

Was it a weird direct-snap sweep to Mike Gillislee that fooled absolutely nobody and lost 10 yards?

Or was it the third-and-6 late in the game when two Bills defenders crashed into each other and allowed Kenny Stills to score a 66-yard touchdown to practically seal the win?

On top of it all, the Bills played LeSean McCoy even though they knew he wasn’t fully healthy due to a hamstring injury, and (surprise, surprise) he made it worse and had to come out of the game. Rex Ryan’s decision to play him will look much worse if McCoy is out for next week too.

The Bills are trying to make it to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. A loss like the one they had Sunday won’t help them break that streak.

Stephen Gostkowski: The New England Patriots are playing very well, but one of their most reliable players has been in a strange slump.

Gostkowski is one of the best kickers in the NFL for years, but hasn’t been this season. Gostkowski missed an extra point on Sunday, the fourth he has missed this season. He has also missed three field-goal attempts, and if his 75 percent mark on field goals holds, it would be the worst of his career.

“I don’t really talk about reasons why I make or miss a kick,” a frustrated Gostkowski told CSN New England. “No one knows, nor cares to understand. I stink right now. That’s just the bottom line.”

Gostkowski said he needs to fix his mechanics. The good news is none of his kicks have cost the Patriots a game. Last season, in the AFC championship game, Gostkowski’s missed extra point was a huge play in the Patriots’ loss. Maybe that has carried over to a new season. Either way, it’s an unexpected slump for one of the NFL’s best.

Colin Kaepernick: Kaepernick isn’t guaranteed a long audition for the San Francisco 49ers. The way Kaepernick’s contract got restructured, he probably won’t be part of the 49ers’ future. He can become a free agent after this season, or the 49ers can pretty easily part ways with him.

Kaepernick’s second start was a lot like his first. He made some plays running the ball. He had 84 rushing yards. But he was too erratic as a passer. He completed 16-of-34 passes for 143 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a 34-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The 49ers are 1-6 and clearly going nowhere this season. If they hoped that Kaepernick would give their awful passing game a boost, that hasn’t happened. Kaepernick might not get too many more starts if that doesn’t change.

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!