Lions QB Matthew Stafford struggling this season
Matthew Stafford was really looking forward to this season last summer.
The Detroit Lions quarterback expected to pick apart defenses by finding one-on-one matchups and throwing to Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Ryan Broyles.
If none of those receivers was open, he couldn't wait to connect with Brandon Pettigrew or Tony Scheffler.
And if the tight ends were covered, tossing a short pass to speedy running back Jahvid Best seemed as if it would be good option.
Not so much.
Stafford might have just two of the aforementioned targets Saturday night when the lowly Lions (4-10) host the NFC-leading Atlanta Falcons (12-2).
''There are NFL teams that go through this, and we're one of them,'' Stafford said. ''It's obviously easier when guys stay healthy and you can work with the same guys all year.''
That's what happened for the most part last year when Stafford stayed healthy for a change and had a trio of receivers - before Broyles was drafted - a pair of tight ends and Best to throw to during a 5-0 start.
Since a concussion knocked Best off the field more than a year ago, the Lions have lost almost twice as many games as they've won. Losing Best in the backfield has made the team even more one-dimensional, relying on Stafford to throw early and often.
Stafford finished last season with 663 attempts, the third-highest total in NFL history. With 629 throws this season, he is on pace to easily break the league's single-season mark of 691 set by New England's Drew Bledsoe in 1994.
His attempts this season are up, and he is down in other categories.
Stafford's rating ranks 24th in the league after it was among the best last season. The Lions are 10-0 when Stafford has a 105-plus QB rating, but he hasn't reached that level of production and efficiency in more than a year.
He has thrown 17 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, a season after breaking out by throwing for 41 scores and getting picked off 16 times. His .595 passing percentage ranks 21st after connecting on 63-plus percent of his passes a year ago.
Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, though, still thinks the 24-year-old Stafford is on track to be one of the NFL's best quarterbacks - ever.
Linehan said Stafford is not the one to blame for his QB rating dipping drastically.
''It has more to do with the continuity of his receiving corps that has not been there,'' Linehan said. ''We didn't have any injuries last year with the guys we were counting on.
''It's not an excuse, but you're not going to have the same rhythm and timing if you've got a revolving door at your skill positions.''
Stafford has been good enough to help Johnson chase a record. He is 182 yards receiving from breaking the single-season mark of 1,848 set by Jerry Rice with San Francisco in 1995.
That's of little consolation for either player, or the team, during the franchise's 10th double-digit loss season in 12 years.
Shaun Hill, Detroit's 32-year-old backup QB, said Stafford will eventually find out this season helped him when he looks back.
''That doesn't take away from the sting of the season, but in the long run, he will be better for it,'' Hill said.
Stafford is hoping he can bounce back quickly from his worst game statistically since the No. 1 pick from the 2009 NFL draft was a rookie.
''The great thing about this league is you got another chance and you got another opportunity to go out and play and play well,'' he said.
It would be tough to play worse.
Stafford completed just 24 of 50 passes for 246 yards without a TD and had two of his three interceptions returned for touchdowns in a 38-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, who had lost nine straight. That extended Detroit's losing streak to six games.
Privately and publicly, Stafford took the blame for the latest setback that gave Detroit the NFL's longest active losing string.
''This losing streak has hurt an awful lot, but good quarterbacks are always going to put it on their shoulders,'' Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said.
The Falcons don't feel sorry for Stafford, a former Georgia star, but they're also not getting too cocky about keeping him humbled.
''Sometimes the season doesn't go the way you planned, but he's still playing well,'' Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson said. ''He's right up there at the top in passing yards among all the quarterbacks.''
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AP Sports Writer George Henry in Flowery Branch, Ga., contributed to this story.
Follow Larry Lage on Twitter: http://twitter.com/larrylage