Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer 318d

After weeks of conservative play, Lions' Matthew Stafford letting it rip

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Matthew Stafford let the ball go toward the end zone. It was the first drive of the game, one of the first longer passes he attempted Monday night against Green Bay. And it was close to perfection.

By now, Stafford knows how to throw to receiver Marvin Jones Jr., so when it looked like he might have led him a little bit, he didn't. Jones made those types of catches all season. By the time the play ended, a 25-yard touchdown that would start a 30-17 win at Lambeau Field -- the second time Stafford has won in Green Bay -- it was clear he might be having one of those games.

The type of game where he looks like one of the league's best quarterbacks -- the guy who can make every throw and then, well, does.

"He was on tonight," Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Monday night. "And played well."

That's understated. Monday night might have been one of the best nights of the 29-year-old's career. He threw touchdown pass No. 200 -- the aforementioned connection with Jones in the first quarter. He put up numbers rivaling some of the best he's ever had. And he became the first Lions quarterback since the 1980s to beat the Packers twice in Wisconsin.

The Matthew Stafford the Lions saw Monday night was an improvement on how he played a week ago against Pittsburgh. The difference Monday night was two 100-yard receivers, three touchdowns and the continued improved blocking of the offensive line. That gave Stafford time to dissect any defense the Packers ran.

It should give the Lions hope. This is the Stafford the Lions paid $135 million for, the Stafford who can carry a team if necessary. It looked exactly like the Stafford occasionally appeared in the past. This time, though, he could be trending toward yet another breakthrough.

"I think we executed well [Monday night]," Stafford said. "We weren't perfect, left some points out there, turned it over, but guys showed up, played really well. Our offensive line did a great job blocking and our guys on the outside were winning and making plays."

All of that starts with Stafford. His passer rating (132.4) was the seventh highest of his career. His QBR (90.3) was sixth best. The 78.8 completion percentage was the fourth-highest rate of his career.

It was the continuation of a more aggressive Stafford than he's really been anytime under Caldwell. Stafford averaged 10.94 yards per attempt and 10.38 yards per dropback, both career highs. His air yards per attempt the past two games are both among the top 13 games of his career. The yards per dropback and yards per attempt in both the Steelers and Packers games rank in the top 10 of his career.

He also crushed Green Bay's blitz, completing 66.7 percent of his passes for 252 yards -- the highest total of his career and most yards thrown by a quarterback against a blitz since Minnesota's Teddy Bridgewater in Week 14 of 2015 against Arizona.

This is the Stafford that always seemed possible -- the aggressive player who can make every throw meshing with the smart decision-maker Caldwell and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter spent the past three-plus years developing. What Stafford has been accomplishing statistically the past two weeks melds the best of both philosophies, the sometimes-conservative offensive style of Caldwell and Stafford's natural let-it-loose talent.

Stafford has thrown for more than 300 yards in three straight games. He's thrown five touchdowns and three interceptions while completing 60 percent of his passes. Those numbers are somewhat skewed because Stafford played hurt against the Saints and took every snap in pistol or shotgun. It led to five turnovers from Stafford -- three interceptions and two lost fumbles.

Now healthy, he's looked like the ascending player he's incrementally become. His completion percentage jumped to 67.9 with two touchdowns and no interceptions -- the type of numbers Stafford needs for the Lions to be continually successful. If he's able to continue that efficiency -- five of his past eight opponents rank in the top 11 in pass defense -- it'll show the growth the Lions believed would continue to happen for their highly paid quarterback.

"This guy brings it every single week no matter how he is feeling," receiver Golden Tate said. "He has taken a lot of hits this year. There are some times where I thought he might miss a few weeks, too, but he just finds a way. He finds a way and brings it every single day.

"Mentally he is incredibly strong. Physically he can do anything. That is enough to motivate me to be really, really good for him. This is a guy who deserves to thrive in this league, experience playoff games, playoff wins, NFC Championship games and even the Super Bowl. He deserves it. He is that type of quarterback and I want to be a part of it and help him get there."

It's the first time under Caldwell and the second time in his career Stafford has thrown for 300 yards or more in three straight games.

The previous time came during the last three weeks of the 2011 season. Stafford led that team to the playoffs. If this year's version keeps up his play of late, with throws and decisions like he made Monday night, he might end up doing the same thing this year, too.

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