It's a stunning fall for a team that was 6-3 and catching every break imaginable just six short weeks ago. Now, the Lions stand at 7-8 after losing five of six despite leading in the fourth quarter in every single game.
When such an epic collapse happens, fingers inevitably get pointed. While some will get pointed at the lack of a consistent pass rush or thrust in the bellicose face of beleaguered head coach Jim Schwartz, there is one primary culprit in the crushing disappointment.
He wears No. 9 and goes by Stafford.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford's uninspired and error-prone play down the stretch is the biggest reason why the Detroit Lions are now eliminated from the playoffs.
This Giants game is an excellent microcosm of Stafford's culpable collapse down the stretch.
Stafford came out flat, misfiring on several throws and generally looking uninspired and uncomfortable with the pressure of the moment. His first-half numbers were not pretty:
He was also sacked once even though the protection was generally solid.
It was worse than the numbers might indicate, as noted by MLive beat reporter Kyle Meinke:
Stafford has thrown four balls into the arms of Giants defenders. One finally stuck. Another bad 30 minutes for him.— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) December 22, 2013
Unfortunately, the first half was his more productive one. He finished 25-of-42 for just 222 yards while tacking on another interception. The QB Rating fell to 53.9. For the mathematically challenged, that's netting just 81 yards on his final 19 passes.
His pick-six late in the fourth quarter brought the Giants back into the game. It was one of many inaccurate throws throughout the second half.
To be fair, there were a couple of ugly drops, notably by reserve tight end Dorin Dickerson in overtime. Although, Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News correctly notes:
That's a drop by Dorin Dickerson, but he was wide open and Stafford threw behind him. #narrative— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) December 23, 2013
Also, Calvin Johnson was clearly hobbled with a knee issue and was a non-factor after the first couple of drives. Top tight end Brandon Pettigrew did miss the game with an ankle injury.
Yet, great quarterbacks don't make excuses. They make wins happen regardless of circumstance.
Matthew Stafford proved beyond any doubt that he is most certainly not a great quarterback against the Giants. Over the last few weeks, he hasn't even been a good one. Check out his numbers from the last four losses:
|Opponent||Comp. Percent||Yards/Attempt||INTs||TDs||QB Rating|
Those are the numbers of a below-average starting quarterback. On many teams, they would indicate a franchise that is looking for a new and better solution at quarterback in the offseason.
Not these Lions. Stafford's recent contract extension of five years and $76.5 million (thanks to Spotrac.com for the numbers) guarantees he will be the quarterback for the foreseeable future. There is no way out for the Lions, even if they want to make a change.
Some of the decline comes from a regression in mechanics and fundamentals. The infamous low-throwing platforms, the off-balance and askew footwork, the sawed-off follow-through; all reared their ugly heads more frequently late in the season.
He demonstrated all of those cardinal sins on this pictured play from the Baltimore game.
But the most disturbing trend is Stafford's late-game failures. As this tweet from last week's loss to Baltimore illustrates, he has been the opposite of clutch in crunch time:
Crazy RT @ESPNStatsInfo: Matthew Stafford is 8-of-33 passing in the 4th quarter over the past 4 weeks -- follow 4th quarter here— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) December 17, 2013
Yet, the losses go beyond the tangible statistics.
Stafford showed little emotion or leadership during the course of the Giants game. In fact, his nonchalance is one of the most disturbing aspects of his game. As Kyle Meinke of MLive noted after Stafford's first interception:
Matthew Stafford just ran to the sideline, met up with Shaun Hill, then shrugged his shoulders like "I don't know."— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) December 22, 2013
No fiery anger. No acknowledgement of guilt or doing anything wrong. No outward display that he cares about driving the playoff bus off the edge of the cliff.
Detroit fans have put up with a lot over the years. They can accept having under-talented rosters, over-matched coaches or even plain old bad luck. But they will not accept blase underachievement from the highly compensated franchise quarterback.
This is going to be a long, cold winter for the Lions. Changes are sure to abound as the calendar turns to 2014 and the Lions still lacking a playoff victory since 1991.
Matthew Stafford will not be part of those changes. He will be the starting quarterback in 2014, period.
The changes at quarterback need to come from within Stafford himself. He needs to show more of the fleeting brilliance he displayed on Thanksgiving against Green Bay. He needs to demonstrate more of the heart and swagger that won the game over Dallas.
The late-season collapse falls on Stafford more than anyone else. If he fails to swallow that bitter pill and come out better for it, this might be the closest the Lions get to the playoffs for the next few years.