Wojo: Stafford keeps firing, Lions' hopes keep breathing

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
From left, the Lions' Theo Riddick, T.J. Jones, Marvin Jones Jr., Eric Ebron and Golden Tate celebrate Jones' touchdown with a can-can dance in the second quarter.

Detroit — He’s under pressure, constantly. They’re under pressure, constantly.

But go ahead and say this about Matthew Stafford and the Lions: They’re getting more comfortable handling the duress.

This is what it’ll take, if there’s something still to take from this season. It’ll be Stafford winging it with virtually unprecedented efficiency, even as defenses swarm him. It’ll be his gifted receivers snatching the ball, part of an identity the Lions have to embrace now more than ever. They do those things very well and did them again Saturday, slugging the Bears 20-10 at Ford Field to keep their faint playoff pulse alive.

They beat another bad team, as they should, and did it with big-play dazzle from Stafford, Marvin Jones, Eric Ebron and others. They also impressively stuffed the Bears’ running game, and Darius Slay and Quandre Diggs were savvy in the secondary, picking off three passes from rookie Mitch Trubisky.

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For the Lions (8-6) to win their final two — at Cincinnati, home versus Green Bay — they’ll need that defense to pop some turnovers, no doubt. Even if they finish 10-6, there’s no guarantee they’ll overtake Atlanta and Seattle for a wild-card spot. But there’s no sense holding back, and in the past few games — including two straight victories over weaker foes — the Lions are doing perhaps what they should’ve been doing all season.

They still flash the pretense of a running game but it ranks last in the league for a reason, and they don’t waste as much time doing it. The offensive line has been bound together with duct tape — three starters were out after T.J. Lang departed Saturday. That’s partly why they’ve beaten only one winning team, but the good news is, they might not have to beat another.

Calming the seas

Cincinnati (5-8) is wobbling and Green Bay (7-6) has a tough one at Carolina Sunday. The specter still hovers of Aaron Rodgers and that New Year’s Eve clash, although there’s a chance it might not matter in the playoff chase. At least the Lions are extending the right to make it matter, primarily because Stafford is extending plays and completing passes at an extraordinary rate.

He was 25-for-33 against the Bears for 237 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, while getting sacked four more times. Stafford now has a career-high quarterback rating of 99.1, despite facing the most pass-rush pressure of his career. He’s been sacked 43 times, and likely will eclipse his highest total (45 in 2014).

And yet in the past three games, his completion percentage is a staggering 80.2 (85-for-106). During one stretch against the Ravens and Bucs, he connected on 32 of 33, including a franchise-record 20 straight. The Lions use short passes to Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah, but there’s no real running game to lighten the pressure.

Don’t kid yourself — the Lions are still gasping at playoff contention only because their quarterback doesn’t gasp when clobbered. Jim Caldwell is the one who calms the turbulence off the field, but during the game, Stafford is the one who must choose between steadiness and risk-taking urgency, and avoid stress under duress.

“I think Matthew’s comfortable with the way these guys are going after the ball for him,” Caldwell said. “Guys got to make plays for you. Every throw’s not going to be absolutely perfect and he’s got to trust you enough that in 50-50 situations, he’s going to lay it up there and know it’s going to be either our ball, or nobody’s ball.”

The difference-making element is the deep pass, and Stafford throws it as well as anyone. When the game was in doubt, with the Lions leading 6-0 in the second quarter, Stafford and Jones connected on a classic. On third-and-18 from his 30, Stafford was chased from the pocket again, rolled to his right and heaved a pass that was so high and deep, it looked like a punt.

Bears safety Eddie Jackson was back there waiting to pick it, until Jones came swooping in, tracking it all the way, and leapt to complete a 58-yard gain. Three plays later, on third-and-1, the Lions wisely didn’t pretend they had a power run game and Stafford hit TJ Jones with a 3-yard touchdown pass.

Spin zone

For all their injuries along the offensive line, the Lions have remained relatively healthy in their receiving corps, with Marvin Jones (970 yards) and Golden Tate (885) having understated superb seasons, each headed toward 1,000 yards. The continuity has allowed Stafford to gain faith in all the pass-catchers, including Ebron and rookie Kenny Golladay.

“That’s the key to success in an offense, having trust in each other,” Stafford said. “The one to Marv was an exceptional play, third and extra long. If they pick it right there, it’s a real good net punt. I’m willing to take those chances. I felt we needed a spark at that time, and it was a big one.”

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The absence of a running game is what always downgrades the Lions’ chances. Riddick ran for 49 yards against the Bears (6.1 per carry) and rookie Tion Green (35 yards) has shown some power. But the Lions have gone 66 games without a 100-yard rusher, and that won’t get fixed until the offseason.

Until then, you do what you do best, try to win it by winging it. Defenses know it’s coming — hence the sack total — but Stafford is tough enough to withstand the punishment, and has been remarkably durable. I don’t know if he’s fulfilled the billing as the highest-paid player in the league, but he’s done pretty darn well given the Lions’ shortcomings.

“That’s our quarterback, and he makes enough money for all of us,” Ebron said. “That’s our guy. He’s playing at an elite level and all we can do is match his intensity.”

It’s a difficult way to win consistently — throwing for volume, running for safety — but it’s the Lions’ only shot. They can’t often dominate, but they can dance, literally. After TJ Jones’ touchdown, five players celebrated by locking arms and kicking high in holiday Rockettes fashion. Later, after Tate caught a 19-yard pass and spun out of bounds, he kept spinning with his hands over his head, a perfect pirouette.

That’s what the Lions do, spin big plays and hope to hang on. After another must-have victory, they earned the chance to dance a while longer.