Matthew Stafford was great last week. This week he may have to be perfect

Detroit Free Press

Carlos Monarrez
| Detroit Free Press

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Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford played great against the Atlanta Falcons.

In fact, he played so great that something incredible happened. My esteemed colleague Dave Birkett gave Stafford his first A of the season in his postgame grades.

I don’t want to call Dave stingy with his grades. But he gives out A’s the way Ebenezer Scrooge gave out Christmas bonuses.

Stafford’s grade was well-deserved, mostly for the way he engineered the 75-yard winning drive in the final 1:04. But he played well all game. He made good decisions, he connected on a lot of deep throws and didn’t turn over the ball. And don’t forget he led the Lions on a drive in the final 29 seconds of the first half that resulted in Matt Prater’s 50-yard field goal.

So I asked Stafford on Wednesday if he thought it was his best game of the season.

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“Yeah, it’s up there,” he said. “I think it went pretty good. Obviously it was pretty good in situational football there at the end of the half, at the end of the game to help us score some points and help us win the game.”

But I’m concerned about this week.

As well as Stafford played against the Falcons, I think he’s going to have to play even better against the Indianapolis Colts’ great defense. He might have to play a darn-near perfect game to beat a Colts defense that ranks second in fewest yards allowed, fourth in scoring at 19.2 points per game and leads the NFL with 10 interceptions, including two pick-sixes.

So I asked Stafford another question. How does he keep playing at a high level? As no surprise, his answer was measured and reasonable.

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 “I think I’ve just got to continue to try to play within the offense, play within myself and then when we get chances to make plays, continue to make them,” he said. “A big part of my success is the guys up front blocking the way they did. They played great up front. And the guys on the outside making plays. It takes everybody for the offense to go and for us to be explosive.”

It sure does. Whether fans — and fantasy owners — want to believe it or not.

Even as some fans have lately been calling for the end of predictable runs and for offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to unleash Stafford — whatever that means — I think they both know better. Stafford has had plenty of seasons with bad run games, but he knows he needs the run game to soften up the defense and bring balance to the offensive attack. He also knows that asking him to do everything all the time isn’t realistic, for any quarterback.

And that’s what worries me. The Lions’ run game hasn’t been terrible this season. But they had their worst rushing performance of the season against Atlanta — just 64 yards. That put a lot of pressure on Stafford to make up for the difference.

And let’s not forget that the Colts have an amazing secondary. They are 4-2 and in their only two losses — to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the season opener and to the Cleveland Browns in Week 5 — offensive turnovers contributed in a big way. The Jags scored 10 points off two Philip Rivers interceptions in a 27-20 win. And Ronnie Harrison’s pick-six contributed to the Browns’ 32-23 win.

The Jaguars’ and Browns’ offenses also helped their quarterbacks by running the ball well. I think those are two big keys in this game for the Lions. They have to run the ball well enough to take the pressure off Stafford, and the defense has to create some turnovers.

It’s always hard, no matter what coaches preach, for players coming off an emotional win to avoid trying to outdo themselves. But this is what Stafford and the Lions must do. They must, as Stafford said, play within themselves.

So let the Colts make the mistakes. The Lions have yet to fumble and they’re tied for seventh place (of course, with the Colts) at plus-3 in turnovers. This is a whopping difference — dare I say a “major improvement” — from last season, when the Lions ranked 24th in the category that serves as a key indicator for success.

This shouldn’t be an easy game for either team. But it’s definitely a winnable game for the Lions. Especially if they don’t force Stafford to play a perfect game and conjure more fourth-quarter magic.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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