Stafford’s finger injury looms large as Lions take on Seahawks
For a team that defined itself with eight fourth-quarter comebacks this fall, the Detroit Lions sure had a lousy fourth quarter of the NFL season.
They head into Saturday night’s game at CenturyLink Field having dropped the last three games — against the New York Giants, Dallas and Green Bay — and without a road playoff victory since 1957.
For most of the season, the Lions had turned on the afterburners in the third and fourth quarter and put away opponents. In the last three games, though, they have been outscored, 49-13, in the second half, with their only post-halftime touchdown coming on a last-minute Hail Mary against the Packers.
Detroit’s best hope wears a glove on his throwing hand that covers a splint on the dislocated tip of his middle finger. As tremendous as Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has been this season — throwing for 4,327 yards with a lofty passer rating of 93.3 — he’s unquestionably playing through pain.
In a conference call this week, Stafford said he and his teammates can draw on the experience of all those comebacks earlier this season.
“I think experience is always a positive,” he said. “We’ve had some good experiences with some late-game stuff. Just got to make sure we’re fighting tooth and nail to give us ourselves either the lead or the chance to come back and win it late in the game.”
Stafford stands alone on one side of the NFC wild-card ledger, as he’s 0-2 in postseason games, whereas Seattle’s Russell Wilson, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, and Eli Manning of the New York Giants all have at least one Super Bowl ring.
“Obviously, there’s a great opportunity in front of us being in the playoffs, one of 12 teams,” he said. “[We are] getting that opportunity this year and got to take advantage of it.”
The Detroit offense, which had played so well earlier in the season, has sputtered of late, in part because of Stafford’s hand issues but also because it lost running back Theo Riddick, who was placed on injured reserve because a wrist injury just before the Lions’ pivotal finale against the Packers.
Even though he led Detroit in rushing, Riddick didn’t put up big numbers this season. He finished with 357 yards, the lowest total of any team leader in the NFL. Then again, the Lions haven’t had a 100-yard rusher since 2014. Yes, the franchise that once boasted Barry Sanders has not had a back rush for more than 75 yards in a game this season.
Three-quarters of the way through the regular season, Stafford was among the leading candidates for NFL most valuable player. He had 21 touchdowns, five interceptions, had completed 67.2% of his passes, and had a 100.5 rating.
But Stafford’s numbers have plunged since he suffered the finger injury in a Week 14 game against Chicago. His completion rate has dropped to 60.3%, and he has three touchdowns and five interceptions during that span.
The Seahawks remain wary of what Stafford can do. Defensive end Cliff Avril, who played in Detroit from 2008-12, said Stafford has gradually rounded into a top quarterback since the Lions drafted the former Georgia star No. 1 overall in 2009.
“He’s taking control of the offense,” Avril said. “He’s making plays that veteran quarterbacks should make. He’s audibling and doing all these different things that earlier in his career he wouldn’t have probably done. As you grow as a player and you get more confidence you can do these things. It’s pretty cool to see his growth, though, because he’s definitely taking some strides in the past few years.”
Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said Stafford is underrated in his ability to tuck the ball and take off, but warned: “If he wants to run it, we’ll chase him down.”
With nine consecutive home playoff victories under their belt, the Seahawks should be taken at their word. But they’ve also seen Stafford play pretty well, dislocated finger or not. They’ve dissected every snap of his 26-of-41 performance against the Packers last Sunday night, including those pinpoint deep passes to T.J. Jones and Marvin Jones.
“He was ripping it and obviously he’s through all that,” Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll said. “But I mean everybody expects him to just be exactly the same when he’s playing with a busted finger, man. I mean, that’s amazing that he can even throw the darn thing. I think he’s back flying and going.”
Stafford might need a splint, but he can still point the Lions in the right direction.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer
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