Like a show-offy little kid turning around on his bike seat to make sure everyone's watching, Matthew Stafford led the Lions to a 6-3 start despite daredevilish decision-making and erratic execution.
Like a pothole his horrified parent can only gasp and point at, the Detroit Lions' 24-21 loss to the now-3-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers is the reckoning everyone could see coming.
Stafford's four-interception day—part of a disastrous self-defeat that included a blocked punt and a lost fumble—means the Lions have dropped two straight games to teams that are otherwise a combined 6-14.
Worse yet, the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears have gone 0-3-1 in those two weeks. The Lions would have been two games clear of the NFC North with five games to play had they taken care of business. Instead, they're tied with the Bears, a half-game ahead of the Packers and falling further behind in the hotly competitive NFC Wild Card race.
Now that Stafford's got a (metaphorical) black eye, he and the Lions are facing a must-win game against the Packers—and Detroit has never beaten Green Bay with Stafford at quarterback.
Is Stafford throwing away the Lions' season?
A High-Wire Act
As I wrote after the Lions pulled off a death-defying comeback win over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 8, "the most stunning part of their limitless potential is how little of it they've realized."
There's no denying Stafford is as physically gifted of a passer as it gets.
His top receiver, Calvin Johnson, is the best there is. Running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell have together rushed for 1,078 yards and seven touchdowns at an average of 4.4 yards per carry. The rebuilt offensive line was Pro Football Focus's fifth-ranked pass-blocking unit (subscription required) after Week 11.
Through 10 games, Stafford's risk-taking, gunslinging style led this talented unit to an average of 26.5 points per game, sixth-best in the NFL. Yet the Lions offense somehow has been less than the sum of its points.
Just look at the Week 11 contest against the Steelers, when the Lions scored 27 on Pittsburgh. All those points came in one incredible second quarter—after which the Steelers slowly came back to win, while Stafford and the offense sputtered.
To take control of the NFC North in Week 12, Stafford and the Lions just had to outscore the Bucs' then-30th-ranked scoring offense (18.7 points per game).
The Lions defense held the Bucs offense to 24 points, but Stafford and the offense still couldn't get it done.
It All Came Tumbling Down
The Lions offense started, as it usually has this season, slowly.
The first series was a three-and-out. The second series ended when a Stafford pass bounced off of receiver Nate Burleson's hands and (eventually) to Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David.
For the fourth time this season, the Lions failed to score in the first quarter. After this loss, the Lions have scored 41 first-quarter points on the season—an average of just 3.7 each game. With 286 total points scored through 11 games, they're averaging 22.3 points across the other three quarters combined.
Unlike some of their other games, the Lions defense kept them in it. This allowed Detroit to take a 14-10 lead in the second quarter. Just before halftime, it was driving toward a third touchdown, which would give it a commanding 21-10 lead going into the locker room.
Instead, Stafford threw high and behind tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who bizarrely ducked out of the way of Buccaneers cornerback Leonard Johnson, leaping up Pettigrew's back to snatch the ball and return it for a go-ahead touchdown.
On the Lions' first drive of the second half, they scored their third and final offensive touchdown, an 18-yard pass from Stafford to Pettigrew. The rest of the game, the Lions' high-powered offense just needed one more score...and they couldn't get it.
The Lions defense forced a Bucs three-and-out, and Stafford forced a pass down the seam to Johnson—easily picked off by Bucs free safety Keith Tandy.
In his post-game comments, Stafford admitted this unforced error bothered him most.
After the Lions defense got another stop, Stafford and the Lions went three-and-out again. That's when the dam finally burst. Lions cornerback Chris Houston got burned by Bucs receiver Tiquan Underwood for an 85-yard touchdown.
On the next drive, Stafford was sacked on 3rd-and-11. The ensuing punt was blocked, giving Tampa Bay the ball on Lions' 11-yard line:
The Lions defense stood tall again, forcing a field goal which Bucs kicker Rian Lindell missed—keeping Detroit alive.
Stafford was leading the Lions back down the field when receiver Kris Durham spectacularly failed to keep holding on to the ball after making a nice catch. The Bucs recovered Durham's improbable fumble, again taking the ball away from the Lions while the Lions were in Bucs territory.
Again, the Lions defense held the Bucs to a field-goal attempt.
Again, Lindell missed.
Still just needing one score to make it all right, to cover up all the mistakes and to take control of the NFC North, Stafford and the Lions drove down to the Buccaneers 28-yard line. Facing 3rd-and-12, and a makeable 45-yard field goal, Stafford saw his favorite target come open and decided to let it rip:
In yet another fluke, Johnson came down with the ball but had it knocked away; cornerback Johnthan Banks was there to pluck the ball out of the air and seal the Lions' fate.
So Far...and Yet, So Close
Coming into Week 12, Stafford had completed just 59.2 percent of his passes; that was 23rd-best in the NFL per Pro Football Reference. Stafford went 26-of-46 against Tampa Bay, so his full-season completion rate drops to 58.9 percent.
Even in an aggressive downfield offense that passes far more often than it runs, that's simply not good enough.
Let's not lose sight of the big picture, though.
Stafford's been producing this season, much more so than he did in 2012. Before his 297-yard performance against the Buccaneers, he was ranked third in the NFL with 3,198 passing yards and tied for third with 21 touchdowns.
Before Week 12, Stafford's interception rate was 1.9 percent per Pro Football Reference, 12th-best in the NFL. His touchdown rate was 5.0 percent, 11th-best. Only Nick Foles, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo and Sam Bradford had thrown more frequent touchdowns without throwing more frequent interceptions.
Despite an aggressive passing offense that had Stafford ranked eighth in average yards-per-attempt (7.6) and fifth in average yards-per-completion (12.9), he still ranked eighth in NFL passer efficiency rating (92.0).
Overall, Stafford, Johnson and the Lions offense are on the cusp of greatness.
If Stafford can place just a few more passes per game just a little bit more accurately, they'll be able to score the points they need to overcome the fluky plays and bad bounces that afflict all NFL teams. Contenders do that, and contenders win games like this one.
The Lions are built to contend. If Stafford can't quit throwing games away with misfires and mistakes, the Lions won't be able to secure a Wild Card berth—let alone stay ahead of the Bears and Packers.
Coming off of a massively disappointing 4-12 season, failing to at least make the playoffs would make this season a failure—and risk labeling both Stafford and his head coach Jim Schwartz with that "failure" tag, too.