Next two games will reveal a lot about Stafford, Lions

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Matthew Stafford

Allen Park – The next two weeks will set the table for the rest of the Detroit Lions season, as well as quarterback Matthew Stafford’s MVP aspirations.

Back-to-back road games leading into the bye, against Houston and Minnesota, will provide clarity on whether this team is capable of contending for a playoff spot. Pull off the improbable sweep and fan excitement is likely to hit a fever pitch, split and Detroit (4-3) is still in good shape heading into the stretch run, or get swept and be looking at needing to win six of the final seven games.

The Texans and Vikings present a specific challenge for Stafford and the Lions. Not only are the two teams a combined 6-0 at home, but they’re doing it with stingy defense, particularly against the pass. That means a pair of strength-on-strength matchups for the Lions.

Despite losing defending defensive player of the year J.J. Watt to a back injury, the Texans defense hasn’t skipped a beat. They’ve been particularly effective slowing opposing quarterbacks. They rank second in the NFL, allowing 184.7 passing yards per game, while surrendering five touchdowns through the air.

It’s a combination of an effective pass rush, led by former first-round picks Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, and a talented secondary, which has been sparked by the emergence of fourth-year cornerback A.J. Bouye.

‘I’m flying around’: Williams emerging on Lions ‘D’

An undrafted free agent out of Central Florida in 2012, Bouye has been one of the best cover corners in the NFL this season, breaking up eight passes and allowing just 53.1 percent of passes his direction to be completed, according to Pro Football Focus.

“I haven’t heard a lot about him in the past,” Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter admitted. “I think the guy is a really, pretty good cover corner, shows up making plays on the ball, shows up knocking balls down and getting his hands on balls, covering good receivers. So he’s a guy that we’re keeping an eye on for sure.”

Jadeveon Clowney

As for Clowney, injuries have prevented him from playing to his potential prior to this season, but he’s healthy and starting to look like the disruptive force the Texans expected when they took him No. 1 overall in 2014.

“Yeah, he’s a powerful guy,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “I mean, he’s exactly I think what everybody expected him to be. He’s tough, hard-nosed, he makes things happen, he’s disruptive, he can close and run, and he can rush the passer and he can defend the run, he can set the edge. He’s a pretty complete player.”

It’s been particularly tough to pass on the Texans at home.

Houston kept Kansas City’s Alex Smith under 200 yards and out of the end zone. Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota completed just 13 of his 29 passes and also failed to throw a touchdown. Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck had a little success, throwing for 252 yards and a score, but was also picked once.

But none of those quarterbacks have been playing near Matthew Stafford’s level this season. He’s top five in completion percentage, touchdown passes and passer rating and is generating early-season buzz as an MVP candidate.

Stafford has played against one top-10 passing defense this season, completing 19 of his 25 throws for 180 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions against Philadelphia.

If he can repeat that type of efficient performance against the Texans this week and the Vikings the next, the Lions will have an excellent shot of winning one or both games, keeping their postseason, and postseason honors, hopes afloat.

Lions vs. Texans preview: Stop Hopkins, Fuller