Stafford leads Lions to another win at the wire

For the third straight game Matthew Stafford drove the Detroit Lions for the winning score with less than two minutes remaining.

Carlos Osorio

DETROIT — Matthew Stafford’s gunslinger mentality has been picked apart and criticized over the years by the quarterback gurus.

Bad fundamentals, throws sidearm and off-balance too much, not accurate enough, they say.

And at times, they’re right.

But there are also other times, like late in Sunday’s thriller against the Miami Dolphins at Ford Field, when there are few quarterbacks in the NFL who can rally a team quite like Stafford.

For the third straight game, and 15th time in his six-year career, he drove the Detroit Lions for the winning score with less than two minutes remaining.

This time, Stafford moved them 74 yards in 11 plays and threw the 11-yard pass to running back Theo Riddick with 29 seconds remaining for a 20-16 victory.

What’s more, he did it all against the NFL’s No. 3-ranked defense.

"We’ve been in that situation so many times," receiver Calvin Johnson said.  "That guy gets in his mind he’s going to go win the game and that’s what he does."

Center Dominic Raiola can sense when they get in the huddle at these difficult moments that his quarterback is ready to do something special.

"I can hear in his voice the confidence," Raiola said. "It’s just part of his makeup.

"I know he loves it. There’s no choice. This is not for you if you don’t like it. This is not the business for you."

It’s definitely the right business for Stafford.

He’s had his share of ups and downs since being the first pick overall coming out of Georgia in 2009, but it appears to be falling into place nicely these days.

The Lions have won four straight to move to 7-2 for the first time since 1993 while holding onto first place in the NFC North with seven weeks remaining.

These nail-biters are almost becoming routine for this team.

Three weeks ago, they overcame a 13-point deficit in the final four minutes to beat New Orleans on Stafford’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Corey Fuller with 1:48 remaining.

Two weeks ago, they did it again, rallying from a 21-point halftime deficit against Atlanta as Stafford drove them into field-goal range in the final minute to set up Matt Prater’s 48-yard game-winner as time expired.

And they did it again Sunday with Stafford completing eight passes for 79 yards on the final drive. That included a pinpoint side-arm throw to Johnson for 18 yards to move into Dolphins’ territory at the two-minute warning.

Stafford then saved the best for last as he had to slide to his left to avoid the pass-rush on third-and-4, giving Riddick time to get open in the end zone. Stafford then used another of those patented off-balance, sidearm tosses to finish the job.

"He’s just a playmaker," Johnson said. "Gotta love it."

Coach Jim Caldwell said that Stafford has an "uncanny ability to throw sidearm."

"You may not like it all the time, but when you add it up, it’s pretty doggone good," Caldwell added. "He never gets flustered. The guy does not mind being in the thick of pressure."

This was Stafford at his best.

He’s not Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady or Drew Brees or Peyton Manning, and he’s never going to be.

But he can be somewhere in that next group of top quarterbacks in the league.

It’s been difficult for most to forget Stafford’s role in last year’s collapse in the final weeks of the season, when he threw 12 interceptions over a six-game stretch that led to the Lions getting eliminated from playoff contention.

These last few weeks, however, suggest that Stafford is turning the corner for the better.

Sure, he’s still inconsistent. His passes aren’t always on target. He’ll make some bad decisions.

But there’s no doubt about one crucial character trait: Matthew Stafford wants to be in these pressure situations. He clearly lives for them, win or lose.

"I just love that feeling," Stafford said. "Everybody’s looking to you to make a play. I just have a good time. There’s no better feeling."

It’s a quality that shouldn’t be forgotten anymore, even when he goes through the tougher times, which are inevitable for a quarterback in the NFL.

On Sunday afternoon, at least for a day, came a time for everyone to appreciate what Stafford is instead of what he isn’t.