Niyo: Stafford infuses Lions with his confidence

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit – Nobody remembers exactly what was said in the huddle before the Lions’ game-winning drive Sunday, the one that gave them a 20-17 victory over Washington and a three-game winning streak.

But that’s mostly because this kind of thing has become routine for this team, facing a fourth-quarter deficit with little time on the clock and plenty of ground to cover.

Sunday, it was 65 seconds and 75 yards after the Lions’ defense had just coughed up another lead, watching Washington’s Kirk Cousins run it in from 19 yards out on a zone read that had fans inside Ford Field ready to weep.

But one look around the Lions’ offensive huddle told a different story, even before quarterback Matthew Stafford matter of factly urged his teammates, “Let’s go make some plays.”

“They know what it’s all about,” Stafford shrugged afterward. “They’ve been in that situation with me before.”

And how. Sunday’s frantic finish, capped by an 18-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin with 16 seconds left, marked the 24th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime of Stafford’s 7½-year NFL career. It’s also the third in the last three weeks, adding another layer to the security blanket coach Jim Caldwell keeps referring to with this team getting “comfortable being uncomfortable.” All seven of Detroit’s games this season have been decided by seven points or less, something no other team in the league can say.

And yet, they don’t seem at all fazed by it. Just the opposite, in fact, at least on offense, which is where this team, led by a 28-year-old quarterback who keeps growing in stature, knows it must excel to get ahead.

“My confidence comes from his confidence,” Golden Tate said, referencing Stafford’s demeanor after Cousins looked like he’d snared a fifth consecutive win for Washington with barely a minute to play. “We didn’t miss a beat. Matt straps his helmet on, comes into the huddle confident like, ‘Hey, we got this.’ So you can’t help but (think), ‘All right, yeah, we got this.’”

Yeah, they did, though not without a few scares — as well as a few timeouts, thanks to Caldwell’s questionable clock management strategy — on the way to a winning record.

Stafford made a terrific throw across his body to Marvin Jones for a 23-yard gain to jump start the winning drive Sunday. And then he made another heady play after that, scrambling for 14 yards to get the ball across midfield. It was his second big gain on the ground in this game, and Stafford is now the Lions’ second-leading rusher this season with 21 carries for 126 yards.

“He’s a lot more mobile than people give him credit for,” Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said.

He’s a lot more risk-averse, too, as we’ve seen the last couple years. In fact, in the 16 games since Jim Bob Cooter was promoted to offensive coordinator last fall — that’s a full season of statistical evidence — he’s completing 68.6 percent of his passes, throwing for 4,310 yards with 35 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. That’s good for a 105.4 passer rating, and that’d be good for a top-five ranking among NFL quarterbacks most years.

It’s also good for 10 wins in those 16 games, though Sunday’s — like so many others — was in doubt until the final minute. And after Andre Roberts made amends for an earlier drop with a leaping 20-yard grab on that final Lions drive — “Just an unbelievable play,” Stafford gushed — there were two straight incompletions. And just two more chances for the Lions to score, facing third-and-10 at the Washington 18.

Time to panic? Not hardly.

“When you have guys that have been around the block like Matthew,” Caldwell said, “he has a great settling force when things are a little tight.”

And still a great arm — “a laser arm” is how his coach described it — when the windows are tight, too.

That was important in the end Sunday, as Cooter dialed up a play the Lions had been running in practice the past couple of weeks but hadn’t had a chance to run in a game yet. Three receivers split wide left, and after Stafford looked first to Tate running across the field, he turned to veteran Boldin, who’d shaken free from cornerback Kendall Fuller — “kind of slow-played his guy,” Stafford said — coming out of the slot.

“I cut it loose and kind of thought to myself, ‘We’re gonna win the game or lose the game on this one,’” said Stafford, who tied Peyton Manning for the fourth-most touchdown passes (178) in his first 100 NFL games. “It was a tight window. But I’ll take that every time. If I throw an interception right there, it’s on my back — I’m fine with it. I’m being aggressive, trying to score.”

That’s exactly what he did, of course, rifling it past the flailing arm of linebacker Will Compton and into the sure hands of Boldin.

“I mean, he put it in the only place you could put it, so I had no choice but to catch it,” said Boldin, who turned and lunged into the end zone for the touchdown.

And now we have no choice but to reconsider what’s possible for this team, which was left for dead after a dreary loss in Chicago dropped their record to 1-3 only three weeks ago.

Now after a perfect homestand with a decidedly imperfect lineup — decimated by injuries to key starters on both sides of the ball — the Lions head to Houston this week suddenly back in playoff contention. After Sunday’s win, they sit a half-game out of the final wild-card spot as we near midseason, and as Stafford noted Sunday afternoon, they’ve clawed their way back even as they wait for some of those injured playmakers — DeAndre Levy, Haloti Ngata, Theo Riddick and Eric Ebron, among others — to do the same.

Sunday, the Lions took advantage of some fortunate bounces — Stafford fell on one himself — and some unfortunate stumbles for the visitors, as Cousins & Co. piled up 417 yards and ran 19 more plays than the Lions but hurt themselves with two costly fumbles.

“You don’t have to be the best team in the league every Sunday,” Tate said. “You just gotta be better than the team you’re playing. And we’re finding ways.”

But whatever you think of their chances going forward — the second-half schedule looks much more daunting than the road they’ve already traveled — there’s no denying it’s Stafford who has played the biggest role in getting them to where they are now.

“You’ve got to have belief in the guys around you, and I do,” Stafford said. “And I think those guys trust me that I’m gonna give them a chance.”

Given what we’ve seen from him lately, how could they not?