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The Same Quarterback - Only Different - Stafford Has Lions On The Rise

By Will Burchfield
Twitter @burchie_kid

Matthew Stafford sees a chasm where there's really just a crack. He's guided by reward even when there's risk. No matter how many bullets go astray, the Lions quarterback cocks, aims and fires; cocks, aims and fires.

He's a gunslinger. He's always been a gunslinger.

Only now, he's rarely missing the mark.

Stafford pulled off his fourth game-winning drive of the season on Sunday, lifting the Lions to a 20-17 win over the Washington Redskins. The go-ahead touchdown – an 18-yard pass to Anquan Boldin with 16 seconds left – was a perfect snapshot of Stafford's fearless approach.

"Just an aggressive shot," Stafford said. "I cut it loose and kind of thought to myself, 'We're either going to win the game or lose the game on this one.' It was a tight window. I'll take that every time. (If) I throw an interception there, it's on my back, I'm fine with it. Being aggressive, trying to score."

The ball whistled into Boldin's hands, who caught it at the five-yard line and then dove into the end zone for the winning score. Stafford's pass couldn't have been more precise.

"He knifed a seam route," said Redskins coach Jay Gruden. "The corner was right there. The safety was right there. I mean, it's a big-time throw."

The Lions had never called that play in a game; Stafford was happy to run it anyway. Boldin was never really open; Stafford was willing to target him just the same. Big plays are often the product of gambles, and Stafford went all-in without batting an eye.

"It was a very, very difficult throw. There's a hole about that big," Jim Caldwell said, holding his hands no more than a foot apart for comparison, "and you've got a quarterback with a laser arm who rifles it in between two defenders.

"He had no doubt in his mind that he could get it in. He drove that ball in there and the old veteran pulled it in."

"He put it the only place you could put it," said the old veteran, "so I had no choice but to catch it."

For Stafford, it was an obvious decision. He knew the Lions needed a touchdown. There was no sense in being conservative, no benefit to playing it safe. For better or worse, he was going for it. He's always gone for it.

"I mean, if I sit there and throw four completions for nine yards and we don't get a first down, then what's the difference? I might as well throw it to the other team. I'm just trying to be aggressive in that situation. You gotta have belief in the guys around you."

Boldin's an easy receiver to trust. The 14-year veteran is as sure-handed as they come, with a penchant for making plays in traffic. But Stafford turned to a less-proven teammate three players earlier, when he hooked up with journeyman Andre Roberts for a critical 20-yard gain.

Stafford was pressured on the play, causing his pass to sail high.

"It didn't come out as good as I would have liked. I cut it loose and thought to myself, 'Well, I think I just threw a pick to the mic linebacker to end the game,'" Stafford said, with a devil-may-care chuckle. "(Roberts) climbed the ladder and went up there and got it. Just a heck of a play."

On Sunday, Stafford's audacity enabled his skillset. His bold mentality allowed his talent to shine. Few quarterbacks can make the kind of throw that Stafford made to Boldin. Even fewer would attempt it. Stafford felt the situation called for it, so he dropped back and dialed up a dime.

When you think about it, these all-or-nothing scenarios are made for him.

"He's been awesome in those situations. He comes in the huddle, he's confident and I think everybody feeds off of that," Boldin said.

Since 2014, Stafford has 12 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, the most in the NFL over that stretch. He has 24 such drives in his career, which is staggering when you consider he has 100 games and 47 wins to his name. Stafford is making the exceptional look routine.

"We've seen number 9 step up time and time and time again. We love him and we follow him," said Golden Tate.

Caldwell pointed to Stafford's calmness as his essential trait in late-game situations. When the moment heats up, his blood runs cold.

"He doesn't back down from tough situations. He relishes in them. He doesn't get nervous and he's got a real clear and focused mind when it's sometimes a little bit of chaos all around him," Caldwell said. "He's a great sort of settling force when things are tight."

When the Redskins went ahead by four with 1:05 to play, Caldwell sought out Stafford on the sideline. He wanted to give his quarterback a message.

"I just told him it's a great time for some late-game heroics," Caldwell recalled.

Stafford nodded, steely-eyed and calculating. He already knew.

"He straps his helmet on and comes in the huddle confident like, 'Hey, we got this,'" Tate explained. "You can't help but think, 'Ok, alright, yeah, we got this.' He just leads us, man."

Stafford gave his teammates a simple speech in the huddle. He reminded them they had three timeouts, more than enough time – "all the time in the world," in fact – and the right players to execute the right plays.

"I mean, they know. They know what it's all about. They've been in that situation with me before," Stafford said.

"I expect to win every time I get the ball."

That's not always how it happens, of course, and Stafford acknowledged as much afterward. But belief spawns success, and the Lions quarterback spreads the former simply by embodying it.

"I don't think you saw anybody holding their head down when Washington scored on their last possession. You know (Stafford's) around," Boldin said.

With a gunslinger to fall back on, the Lions offense is never out of a fight.

It's a funny term, "gunslinger." It's reserved for cannon-armed quarterbacks, but it carries negative undertones. Gunslingers are thought to be reckless, rash and unreliable. They're considered poor decision-makers. Sure enough, these are labels that have dogged Stafford throughout his career.

This year, he's begun to shake them off. He's posted career-high marks in both completion percentage (68.0) and passer rating (105.7) through the first seven games of the season, and he's on pace to throw 34 touchdowns to just nine interceptions, by far the best ratio of his career. Meanwhile, he's still averaging about 275 passing yards per game.

Caldwell has talked frequently this year about the maturation process for NFL quarterbacks, suggesting that it takes up to eight years for certain QBs to fulfill their potential. It's an arbitrary number, but it bears mention that Stafford, in his eighth year, is in the midst of his best season ever – and hasn't fundamentally altered his approach.

It's that last piece that bodes well for the Lions. Stafford's still an aggressive quarterback, he's just a more accurate thrower. He's still inclined to attempt high-difficulty passes, he's just better equipped to do so. His talent has caught up to his style.

Thus have the Lions won their last three games, especially Sunday's clash with the Redskins. Their quarterback is as confident and bold as ever, only he's showing the precision to back it up. His gunslinger's mentality has been enhanced by a sharpshooter's aim.

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