Ask any Detroit Lions fan why the team made the playoffs in 2016, and 10 out of 10 will say the exact same thing: Matthew Stafford and Matthew Stafford alone. Stafford carried a team with what many consider one of the worst rosters in the league to a 9-7 record and a division title shot in Week 17.
In fact, Stafford has been doing this for years. When the Lions made the playoffs in 2011, he threw it a league-high 663 times, put up 5,000 passing yards for the first time in his career and tossed a career-high 41 touchdowns. Even when the Lions made the playoffs with their defense in 2014, Stafford rightfully took credit cutting down on interceptions and bumping up his accuracy.
But on Monday night, the Lions did something they’ve never truly done before: Prove they can win without Matthew Stafford dragging the team along.
Against the Giants, Stafford threw for just 122 yards, the second-lowest total in his career (only beaten by the season opener against the Chicago Bears in 2010, when he was injured at halftime) and his lowest in a winning effort. Prior to this game, the Detroit Lions were just 3-11 when Stafford threw for under 210 yards. If they couldn’t rely on Stafford, they weren’t going to win the game.
But on Monday, the Lions willfully played an entire half without Stafford. After an excellent first half from Stafford, the Lions quarterback threw just four passes in the final two quarters:
Matthew Stafford split stats:— Pride Of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) September 19, 2017
1st half: 12/17, 107 yards, 2 TDs
2nd half: 3/4, 15 yards
And despite not putting much of anything on their best player’s shoulders, the Lions won, and won decisively.
The Lions defense gave up just three points in the second half, making two key fourth-down stops in the final quarter. Special teams continued to play good coverage, holding the Giants to just nine punt return yards. Oh, and then Jamal Agnew did this:
Then there’s the run game. It wasn’t great in the second half. In fact, it was still very bad. They ran the ball 18 times and gained just 69 yards (3.8 YPC). Take away Ameer Abdullah’s 34-yard run, and the Lions rushed the ball 17 times for 35 yards (2.1 YPC). Take away two Stafford scrambles—since they weren’t designed run plays—and you’re left with 15 carries for 25 yards (1.7 YPC).
But the Lions kept at it and kept running clock. And even if it was bolstered by two long runs, Detroit finished the game with 138 rushing yards and 4.3 yards per carry. No small feat against this excellent Giants front.
They kept the Giants defense honest, and, most importantly, they kept Matthew Stafford off his back. By focusing heavily on the running game, they avoided negative plays like sacks and game-changing fumbles or interceptions.
They relied on their offense to milk the clock, their special teams to win the field position battle and their defense to hold a two-score lead. And all three phases held up their end of the bargain, while Stafford got to chill in the second half.
I don’t know if this sort of thing is sustainable. The Lions aren’t always going to play a team that’s struggling this hard on offense and their opponents won’t always be this self-destructive—especially in the red zone. But the Lions won a game by giving the highest-paid quarterback the final two quarters off. That’s got to be promising.