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Wojo: When Stafford's on like this, sky's the limit

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — It was the sound the Lions wanted to hear, and needed to hear. It was a "whir," but it might as well have been a "whew."

Matthew Stafford was zipping the ball like his hand was inflamed, firing it hard, firing it quickly, firing it everywhere. And yes, firing it into the end zone. That was the whew factor, the relief that the Lions didn't forget how to score touchdowns. It also was the wow factor, as Stafford unleashed with dazzling accuracy and the Lions stomped the Bears 34-17 on Thanksgiving Day.

On a day of feasting, you got the sense the Lions were happy to finally loosen their belts. They weren't too tight, they weren't too timid. Frankly, like many people stuffed on turkey day, they were fed up.

Two games without a touchdown has a way of igniting, and now it's up to the Lions (8-4) to stay lit, as their playoff drive continues. Did it help to face the Bears' woeful pass defense? Of course. But at least the Lions did what they should do, using their star receivers, Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, and daring the defense to stop them. Johnson was back to his incomparable self, scoring twice, and Stafford flung the ball with confidence, throwing so hard his offensive linemen chuckled at the noise.

"I mean, you could hear it coming off his hand back there, like he was whipping it," offensive guard Rob Sims said. "When it's like that, you're like, oh man, here we go. Everybody was just tired of being what we were. Doubt was creeping in a little bit. We needed to do something."

This is what the Lions must do, play to their strengths and attack on offense as relentlessly as they attack on defense. Stafford was superb, pushing the tempo, huddling briefly, if at all. The Lions had gone 25 consecutive possessions without a touchdown and were trailing 14-3 in the second quarter when Stafford zipped a strike down the middle to Johnson for a 25-yard touchdown.

It was a whir, then a whew.

"It was nice to score on an aggressive play down the field that Calvin made a great catch on," Stafford said. "It kind of gave us some air in the balloon. … I think everybody was extremely motivated coming into this game. I know I was, and it showed."

That's better

One game doesn't change everything, especially when Chicago's battered secondary insisted upon trying to cover Johnson one-on-one. But this was a perilous juncture for the Lions, and you could tell when the crowd got restless after the first drive — run, run, Stafford incompletion.

Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi had been criticized for playing it safe, Stafford had been criticized for playing tentatively and the offensive line had been criticized for springing leaks. There's some virtue in not taking unnecessary risks, but the past two weeks, Stafford played as if handcuffed.

It's amazing how much better a quarterback looks when he has protection and receivers hang onto the ball. More important, Stafford seemed comfortable with the plan, throwing early and regularly. He completed 34 of 45 passes for 390 yards (275 in the first half), with two touchdowns and no interceptions. A week ago at New England, he was 18-for-46.

Even more telling: On first downs, Stafford completed 17 of 21 for 179 yards. Instead of stubbornly running the ball, the Lions opened it up, which created later opportunities for Joique Bell, who rushed for 75 of his 91 yards in the second half.

"I love throwing the ball, I think all quarterbacks do," Stafford said. "We're good at running the football; I think we're extremely dangerous passing it. We just had to make sure we played fast and dictated to the defense."

It's easier for the Lions to dictate tempo on their home field, with fewer communication issues. But if they're to evolve beyond an occasional playoff intruder, they have to dictate more often, against better teams. That goes back to mutual trust between the coaching staff and Stafford, and if it was tested this week, both sides passed nicely.

"Obviously, this is not a typical performance, let's not fool ourselves," Jim Caldwell said. "Seventy-seven (completion percentage) isn't done consistently in this league. Do I think that he's capable? I think and still do believe he's capable of having great games. I do think you haven't seen the best of him yet. I talked about it early on with him, that he's kind of in that age range where you start to see an escalation in play."

In a rhythm

Stafford is 26, and the escalator hasn't always been headed up. It's an arduous process, with the Bears' Jay Cutler a prime example. The two quarterbacks are sort of mirror images, right down to their uniform numbers — No. 6 and No. 9.

Cutler, 31, slings the ball as hard as anyone and also has great receivers, but gets impatient and makes mistakes. The Bears have a poor defense, and that compounds the pressure. The Lions have a stellar defense, and have played to that strength. To be a complete team, they need to lean on Stafford and the offense even more.

The Bears watched the Lions pile up 474 yards, with Johnson and Tate combining for 19 catches, and were duly impressed.

"We were able to get to (Stafford) with pressures, and then they started running shallow routes and checking the ball down," Bears defensive end Jared Allen said.

"They got Matt into a rhythm, and he's a tough quarterback when he's in a rhythm."

The Lions are a tough team when Stafford is flinging and zinging, and everyone sees it and hears it. When he gets dialed in like this, it's always wise to dial him up.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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