DETROIT -- Golden Tate was streaking down the field, having beaten his man on a deep route. Matthew Stafford let the ball go. So often over the past two seasons, this connection would have been completed.
The Detroit Lions would have scored. Another improbable comeback might have taken place. But the throw was off. Way off. Sailed almost 10 yards in front of Tate. The next play, Stafford was intercepted by Xavier Rhodes off a tipped ball. The offense’s last chance to pull out a surprising win was foiled.
It was that type of day for Stafford, the heartbeat of the Detroit offense. Not surprising that, as the quarterback, everything goes through him. On days where he’s on or able to find a rhythm, few quarterbacks in the league are better. On days he isn’t, like Thursday in a 30-23 loss to Minnesota that all but eliminated the Lions’ division title hopes, it becomes a problem.
The throw to Tate at the end was just the most obvious example. Stafford said his day had a few of them.
“That one’s there. A couple to [Darren] Fells in the red zone,” Stafford said of the misses. “It wasn’t just that last drive. There were a couple throughout the day where we ended up getting threes that could have been sevens, and if they are sevens, we are sitting in a better place at the end of the game.”
That’s been a problem for the Lions at points throughout the year -- finishing off drives, scoring touchdowns instead of leaving it on the reliable foot of Matt Prater. And on games where Stafford is pinpoint accurate and upright, the Lions typically get enough scoring chances to win games.
But on days where he struggles -- and he was missing throws prior to the ankle injury he suffered on a great throw to Marvin Jones in double coverage that resulted in a touchdown, cutting Minnesota’s lead to 27-23 -- the offense doesn’t have much else to rely on with a sub-par run game.
And there wasn’t anything specific Minnesota was doing to Stafford -- other than being the aggressive Vikings defense that has consistently hit Stafford over the past four seasons facing them -- that was causing Stafford’s issues. At least until the ankle injury.
“Obviously that’s a good football team we’re facing,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “It’s not like we’re playing against air, so they give you some problems. But no, nothing out of the ordinary.”
The Lions saw some of the best and worst of Stafford on Thursday. The worst in those off-target passes that could have been completions and drive-extenders, passes that over the past three seasons he’s typically completed. It resulted in his worst completion percentage since Week 6 in New Orleans, where the Lions' offense struggled until they were being blown out.
The best in that throw to Jones and his ability to stay in the game after the ankle injury. That showed his toughness, and it’s a quality that has earned him respect within the Lions' locker room. They know he’s going to do whatever he can to stay in the game, to find his receivers, to push through whatever pain he may have.
“You never want to see any of your teammates go down, but a player like him, you know unless it’s something where he literally is getting carted off he’s going to get back up and go back in,” receiver TJ Jones said. “It’s just a matter of being there for him and making sure we’re all on our P’s and Q’s, especially when he may take a hit here and there.”
The Lions are at the point now where they believe if Stafford is on the field, injured or healthy, limping or running, he’s going to be the quarterback they have come to rely on. But Stafford was 3-of-6 for 7 yards and an interception over Detroit’s final two drives of the game after going 17-of-29 for 243 yards and two touchdowns before the injury.
Neither Stafford the Lions saw Thursday -- pre-injury or post-injury -- was the one they’ve been used to this season. He had an off day, and as the Lions once again learned, when Stafford is struggling offensively, the Lions don’t have much else to go on to win.
“Didn’t play well enough to win it,” Stafford said. “Left too many points out there. Missed a couple throws here and there that probably could have changed the game.
“So never fun to have that happen.”