We've all been waiting for the 2011 version of Matthew Stafford to show up again. That was by far his most productive and most successful season as an NFL quarterback. After putting up over 40 touchdowns and 5,000 yards, Stafford won comeback player of the year, and talk began of whether or not the young gunslinger was ready to make the jump into the upper echelon of quarterbacks. But we all know how that ended up. We also know that the majority of the Detroit Lions' offseason was spent building a roster and coaching staff that could help their franchise signal-caller.
After Week 1 it looked like a rousing success. Stafford finished with nearly 350 passing yards, two touchdowns and a 125.3 quarterback rating, the fourth-highest of his career. Then, for a myriad of reason, the offense crumbled and so did Stafford. Between weeks two and 12, Stafford posted some of the worst numbers of his career. He had a 1:1 touchdown/interception ratio, completed only 58 percent of his passes and averaged a 77.3 quarterback rating. His low point came in Week 12 against the New England Patriots when the offense went into full-on self-destruction. It led many to question whether or not these were just the "Same Old Lions."
And some of those questions were merited, especially when you consider Stafford's previous record in December. Prior to last Sunday's game, Stafford had a 3-11 record in the month of December. This is the time of the year when a quarterback is supposed to be playing his best football, not his worst. In 2013, Stafford collapsed during the last month of the season and so did the entire team. He completed just 56 percent of his passes, had two touchdowns to five interceptions and ended December with a 63.8 quarterback rating.
This year looks like a different story, and Stafford started the homestretch with a bang.
Matthew Stafford the last two weeks: 60/79 (75.9%) for 701 yards (8.9/att), 5 TDs, 0 INTs, 123.4 passer rating. #Lions 68 points.— Zach Kruse (@zachkruse2) December 7, 2014
Many of the early problems with the offense are starting to correct themselves, mainly Calvin Johnson once again being Megatron and a much improved (and healthy) offensive line. Chief among them all, however, may be an ever-growing understanding of the offense. You have to remember, this team has only had 13 games under its belt. Jim Caldwell spoke to that growing experience on Monday:
"Experience sort of tells me that if you stay with it, that you believe in it and your guys are getting better that we're going to improve. We're starting to improve a little bit and hopefully it shows that we're hitting our stride. But like I said, every game's different and this game will prove to be another great challenge for us coming up."
Some of Stafford's success has come at the hands of poor opponents. Both the Chicago Bears (29th) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (22nd) rank in the bottom half of the NFL in terms of pass defense, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. The two teams the Lions played prior, the Arizona Cardinals (seventh) and Patriots (ninth), rank in the top 10.
The good news for Stafford is that his road to the playoffs isn't a difficult one, at least in terms of pass defense. The next three opponents -- the Minnesota Vikings (16th), Bears (29th) and Green Bay Packers (17th) -- all have defenses that can be exploited through the air. Now it's up to Stafford to prove he can do it.