EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The pocket fell around Matthew Stafford, and once again, the Detroit Lions' quarterback was forced to improvise. Like he has done so often in the first two weeks of the season, Stafford spun out of the back of the pocket, away from the pressure.
Then he made his decisions. Sometimes, if the lane was there, he took off, trying to get the first down. Other times he kept his eyes focused downfield, searching for a pass-catcher, any pass-catcher, to make a play.
This was the Stafford the Lions have gotten used to seeing the past two seasons, the smart quarterback making intelligent decisions, the quarterback who so often took the very little he had to work with and somehow made a play. He did this on Monday, too, without his starting left tackle, Taylor Decker, and on a night when Decker’s replacement, Greg Robinson, struggled to handle the New York Giants' pass rush. Robinson picked up a couple of penalties, allowed a couple of pressures and was part of an offensive line that sent Stafford scrambling for 23 total yards in a 24-10 win.
It's the way he scrambles, too. He seems to have more of a feel for it than ever before -- knowing when to step up and when to roll-dodge out of the pocket on the back side. That's growth in the quarterback who has been the team's established starter for years now.
"I don't know, just play a lot of football," Stafford said. "It's not something I practice, not something I think about. It just happens. So [it] worked a couple times tonight. It has not worked a couple times in my career."
But these games such as Monday night are not games Stafford has historically won as Detroit’s quarterback. Entering Monday night, he was 20-34 in his career on the road. He had won only one game -- against New Orleans in 2015 -- on the road on Monday night. More critical for Stafford was how he looked doing it, a 15-for-21, 122-yard, two-touchdown, no-interception night when he did everything he needed in order to win.
He played sharp. He made smart decisions. He moved the pocket well with his eyes and his footwork. These are all things the Lions have preached to him, and he has been able to improve under head coach Jim Caldwell, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and quarterbacks coach Brian Callahan, and he continually showed up against the Giants. Simply, Stafford played like the type of quarterback who understands what he needs to do on the road.
He took deep shots when he needed to -- including a touchdown pass to Marvin Jones Jr. in the first quarter -- but minimized risk. Stafford did what so many top NFL quarterbacks do going into a tough environment on the road: He managed the game and his decisions to make sure his team was in position to win.
"I've got a lot of trust in him," Stafford said of Jones. "He's made some big plays over the years, came close a couple times tonight. I missed him early in the game on one, by, golly, a yard or two, and again later in the game. We'll continue to take shots, be aggressive, hopefully hit a couple more of them."
Stafford got help from the Lions' special teams, with an 88-yard punt return for a touchdown from Jamal Agnew, and from a defense that sacked Eli Manning five times and picked him off once. Stafford even came back one play after getting poked in the eye to lead a touchdown drive in the first half -- a big momentum boost for the Lions.
These types of games are the ones Stafford had to start winning. Yes, he did so last season, to an extent. But so much of the Lions' success was based on his last-minute miracle comebacks instead of what he was able to do Monday.
Stafford led the Lions to a complete win, one in which Detroit never trailed, never looked frazzled and never seemed to not be in control of the game. On the road. On a Monday night. And that, more than anything else, might be the next step in Stafford’s development as a quarterback. For the second straight week, Stafford completed more than 70 percent of his passes (71.7 percent) -- one of the team's biggest goals for him this past offseason.
This was a national stage for Stafford -- his first since he signed his $135 million contract that made him the NFL’s highest-paid player. He showed that not only could he handle it but he could also thrive in it. And that, for the Lions, might be the next step in the development of an elite quarterback and a team with which he can win.