Stafford and the Ol' Gunslinger

Matthew Stafford (Leon Halip/USP)

Just like a young Brett Favre had to do with the Packers, Matthew Stafford is carrying Detroit's offense. Stafford has had a record-setting season in leading the Lions back into the playoffs and into Sunday's game at Green Bay.

Two decades ago, Brett Favre was winning football games for the Green Bay Packers with the likes of Darrell Thompson and Vince Workman in the backfield.

That's about as good a parallel as there is to what Matthew Stafford is doing as quarterback of the Detroit Lions. What coach Jim Schwartz imagined would be a formidable one-two backfield punch of powerful rookie Mikel Leshoure and fleet-footed second-year back Jahvid Best never materialized, with Leshoure tearing an Achilles in training camp and Best lost after six games because of concussions. That's left the running game in the hands of street free agent Kevin Smith and journeyman Maurice Morris, who have combined for 624 rushing yards.

Still, the Lions are 10-5 and heading to the playoffs for the first time since 1999 because Stafford and his version of Sterling Sharpe, towering Calvin Johnson, have been unstoppable down the stretch.

In his last three games — all victories to end the Lions' playoff drought — Stafford has completed 78-of-117 passes (66.7 percent) for 991 yards with nine touchdowns and no interceptions, good for a passer rating of 118.6.

"We've got a good quarterback and we put it on him," Schwartz said after last week's 38-10 thumping of San Diego. "When you've got a chance to go to the playoffs and you are at home, you need your quarterback to play good and he did.

While Stafford wasn't selected to the Pro Bowl, if anyone else wins Comeback Player of the Year, it would be a travesty. The first overall pick in 2009, Stafford played in just 13 games in his first two seasons because of shoulder injuries. He went 2-8 as a rookie with 13 touchdowns and 20 interceptions, then played in only three games last year.

He's been sensational this season, with team records of 4,518 passing yards and 38 touchdowns. Even without a reliable running game, the Lions are averaging a franchise-record 28.9 points per game.

"I'd like to talk about the guy we're playing this week," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said when asked about the quarterbacking play around the league. "I think Matthew Stafford in his first season as being healthy and being the starter, I think he's played great. He definitely deserved Pro Bowl recognition by the way he played and what he's done for that team, making big plays, taking care of the football. I think he's had an excellent season. I'm happy for him. He's probably disappointed by not getting the nod, but he's a guy who's going to be playing at a high level for a long time and a guy who I'm going to enjoy playing against."

Stafford, playing with a splint on a broken right index finger and a glove on his throwing hand, suffered through a tough stretch that included one touchdown and three interceptions in Green Bay's 27-15 win on Thanksgiving. The splint and glove came off the following week at New Orleans, and while the Lions lost, Stafford threw for 408 yards.

"The finger feels good," Stafford said during Wednesday's conference call with Packers beat reporters. "It's pretty much back to normal, and that's nice. It's been a fun year, being able to play in all the games and be effective for my team. That's really what you want to do at quarterback, is be available and be effective. I'm just glad I've been able to be a part of it."

Stafford's ability goes beyond his arm and accuracy. Four times, he's rallied the Lions to victory after trailing by at least 13 points, including 20-0 at halftime at Minnesota in Week 3 and 27-3 in the third quarter at Dallas in Week 4.

"He has a good personality for playing in the NFL and doesn't get rattled very easily," Schwartz said during his conference call. "He's very consistent in preparation and it shows on Sunday. There's not many quarterbacks that can come back from 24 points down and 20 points down and 13 points down in the last couple minutes of the game and lead teams to wins. In order to do that, you have to be able to be calm and have confidence and have playmakers around you. Matt has all of those things."

As for that running game? With Stafford having a cadre of capable pass-catchers led by Johnson (85 catches, 1,437 yards and 15 touchdowns) and tight end Brandon Pettigrew (76-661-5), Schwartz makes no apologies and isn't looking for any sympathy.

"Green Bay lost Ryan Grant last year in the opener, didn't get (James) Starks until he came off of PUP. Peyton Manning's had the last-ranked running offense in the NFL but led his team to a lot of wins," Schwartz said. "It's all about moving the ball. It's all about getting the ball in the end zone. Those are the only things that are important. You don't get any extra points for running it, you don't get any extra points for passing it. However it is that we get done that, Matt can do it for us – getting us in good plays in the run game, throw the ball well to open up the run game, use the run to set up the pass. We don't go into any game saying we're going to run it 40 times or we're going to throw it 60 times. You have to do what it takes to win that week. Matt has that ability."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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