Wojo: With Stafford slinging, Lions can win this division

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Green Bay, Wis. — This is exactly what the Lions needed from Matthew Stafford, and exactly when they needed it. They couldn’t lose this one, not with their season teetering, not with the Packers missing Aaron Rodgers. They couldn’t squander this matchup on Monday, and Stafford played as if he absolutely knew it.

This was Stafford at his sharpest, in control from the opening drive, and receivers Golden Tate and Marvin Jones were at their big-play finest. This was the Lions taking care of business with punishing proficiency, and making certain they weren’t gonna lose to a backup quarterback, Brett Hundley.

The Lions stopped their three-game slide with a 30-17 victory over the Packers, and now have a chance to start a rise. They’re 4-4 with their schedule lightening — including a visit from the winless Browns on Sunday — and the task won’t change much. They have to take advantage of weakened opponents, and the guy to do it is Stafford, the Last Quarterback Standing in the NFC North. He took the Monday night spotlight and pulled his receivers in with him.

Were the Packers considerably easier pickings without Rodgers? Well, of course. The Lions generated decent pressure on Hundley, sacking him three times, and he was overmatched. It’s hard to picture Green Bay (4-4) sticking around in the division race with this young quarterback.

But before you chalk it up to good fortune, remember the Lions had lost 24 of their past 25 games in Wisconsin, so they don’t take any visit to Lambeau Field for granted. They were efficient from the start, and while there’s no such thing as a flawless performance, consider this: They didn’t punt in a game for the first time since 1971.

Sharp from the start

Stafford was as good as ever —26-for-33 for 361 yards — and says he feels much better physically than a few weeks ago, before the Lions’ bye. In games since then against Green Bay and Pittsburgh, he’s 53-for-78 for 784 yards, without an interception. This can be his division now, in Rodgers’ absence, and when he gets solid protection — sacked only once — he looks capable of seizing it.

“When you can give a quarterback like Matt time to go through his progressions, you know how his arm is, he can make every throw on the field,” said Marvin Jones, who had two touchdown catches. “He was great. He can sling it anywhere, and you just have to be there to catch it. When he’s on, there’s no other quarterback I’d rather play with.”

The Lions wasted no time, as if the miscues in that 20-15 loss to the Steelers last week still burned them. For the first time this season, they scored on their first drive, capped by a perfect 25-yard pass to Jones. In the fourth quarter, after Green Bay stirred the crowd with a touchdown to make it 20-10, Stafford and crew went back to work.

He flipped a screen pass to Theo Riddick, who churned 63 yards to the Packers 12. Two plays later, it was Jones again, making a twisting catch for an 11-yard touchdown and the rout was on.

In between, Tate made acrobatic, toe-tapping grabs (seven for 113 yards). Even Eric Ebron became a viable option with three receptions, and when the Lions dared to venture into the red zone again, it was Ameer Abdullah taking a pitch and scooting 5 yards for a 14-0 lead.

“Our guys outside were doing a great job of winning, and I was just trying to get it to the open guy,” Stafford said. “When we can spread people out and use a bunch of weapons like we did tonight, we’re at our best.”

At least half the game would’ve looked different if Rodgers were healthy, but last we checked, he doesn’t play defense. Stafford carved up the Packers, who were coming off a bye but now are reeling with three straight losses.

There for the taking

By the regular-season finale in Ford Field against Green Bay Dec. 31, perhaps Rodgers will be back from his collarbone injury. It should be the Lions’ unrelenting mission to render that irrelevant. And oh, by the way, the Vikings (6-2) and third-string quarterback Case Keenum haven’t stepped quietly out of the way yet either.

Jim Caldwell was pleased with his team’s response to a crushing loss, but he didn’t seem surprised by it. The Lions have been on the brink — piling up 482 yards against the Steelers — but need someone to push them over.

More: Justin Rogers’ Lions grades: Stafford, coaches on point

Generally speaking, it has to be Stafford, who’s getting more time to operate as his offensive line gets more time playing together. The defense was tough, but against Hundley that’s not exactly the fairest fight. Every time the Packers were thinking about mounting a rally, the Lions fired right back.

Tate was superb, and if you recall, he supposedly was going to miss a few games with a shoulder injury, but hasn’t missed a thing. That toughness also is reflected in Stafford, who was limping on a bad ankle before the bye but isn’t missing much of anything now.

“What’s motivating me personally is that this guy brings it every single week, no matter how he’s feeling,” Tate said. “Matt’s taken a lot of hits, and at times, I thought he’d miss a few weeks. Mentally he’s incredibly strong. Physically he can do anything. He’s had a long career and he deserves to thrive and experience playoff games, playoff wins. I want to be a part of helping him get there, and we’re working in the right direction.”

At least on this night, they reversed direction and pointed back upward. The season is only halfway over but the Lions have emerged from the toughest part of their schedule mostly intact. The next move is theirs to make, and if Stafford gets this much protection and production, the division indeed could be theirs to take.