East Rutherford, N.J. — Make no mistake, this is how you win a game on the road in the NFL.
Sometimes you throw it away to avoid throwing it away. And sometimes you decide to run, especially when you've got a free pass.
Sunday was a win for the Lions, above all else. But this 24-17 victory over the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium sure looked like another milepost in the evolution of Matthew Stafford as a winning quarterback as well, watching him beat one of the league's better defenses largely by not beating himself.
A lesser opponent? Maybe. But away from home, and without arguably the game's biggest crutch — Calvin Johnson — it's another lesson learned, and rewarded, as the Lions flew back to Detroit with the division lead to themselves and their confidence growing.
Stafford finished the day 24-of-34 passing for 293 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for a tap-dancing, tongue-wagging score. But it was the stat he didn't fill — no turnovers for the first time since the season-opening win against the Giants — that might've mattered most.
And for all the winning plays he made, from that second-quarter bomb to Jeremy Ross to the string of third-down conversions — three completions to three different receivers — late in the third quarter, some of his best plays might've been incompletions.
Like the one in the final minute of the first half, with the Lions running their two-minute drill and reaching the red zone where they've admittedly struggled this season, including an 0-fer last week against Green Bay.
On first-and-10 from the Jets' 16-yard line, Stafford had plenty of time — "Enough time to pretty much scan the whole field," he said — but few good options, particularly with the Jets doubling Johnson to his right. Stafford looked and looked, then rolled out of the pocket and looked some more before finally tossing one into the sideline rather than throwing up a jump ball for Johnson.
"Didn't work out for us," Stafford shrugged. "So I threw one away to live another down."
'Can make any throw'
And he was instantly gratified, because offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi dialed up the play Stafford was hoping he'd call. Empty backfield. Five receivers. And rookie tight end Eric Ebron running a seam route matched up with a linebacker. Stafford saw him open and threw to his back-shoulder. Ebron snagged it for his first career touchdown and the Lions took a 14-point lead into halftime.
"Matthew's a smart player," said Golden Tate, who stepped up as the primary target Sunday, matching his career high with eight receptions for 116 yards. "He's got a strong arm, can make any throw on the field. And today, he was putting balls where they need to be put."
Which is to say, they don't always have to be on his receiver's hands. As the Jets' Rex Ryan reminded himself facing the postgame firing squad, "Making mistakes — that's the killer for a coach." And while the Lions' last head coach talked often about "discretion being the better part of valor," we never saw it quite enough from Stafford, particularly in hostile environments like this.
He has had his momentary lapses in judgment this season, too, "but his decision making has been a lot better than it has in the past," said Tate, who saw what we all saw before he became Stafford's teammate.
And Sunday, with Johnson clearly limited by an ankle injury — anything the Lions got from him "was gonna be a bonus," Stafford said — there certainly were more decisions to be made.
Smart runs by Stafford
That touchdown run to start the fourth quarter was one example. Stafford scrambled on a keeper to cap a 14-play, 90-yard drive — "They covered it pretty good, so we had to run it in," he said — rather than forcing the issue with his arm.
He'd do it again with the Lions protecting a seven-point lead in the closing minutes. The Lions were shorthanded in the backfield, by that point. With Joique Bell sidelined by a possible concussion, and backups Theo Riddick and Montell Owens also out because of thigh injuries, the Lions were relying on Reggie Bush to run out the clock in their four-minute offense.
Or so it appeared until the play after the two-minute warning, when Stafford lined up, read his keys, saw the defense selling out to stop the run, with the free safety ready to fire, and decided to finish this one himself. Instead of a handoff, it was a bootleg run by Stafford around the right end for seven yards and a game-clinching first down.
"That's literally the only play in the book that I was allowed to do that on — and I was taking advantage of it," Stafford said, smiling. "I'm just glad it worked."
It worked to perfection, really, punctuated by a textbook baseball slide and celebratory spin of the football. And there was no mistaking the message as he trotted back to the huddle, ready for the victory formation.
"It's a great feeling," Stafford said. "I'm just glad I could help our team."