Years from now, Detroit Lions fans will remember where they were and how they felt when Matthew Stafford capped a 98-yard drive with a touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson -- the game-winning score in Sunday's 28-27 victory over the Oakland Raiders. But the "Megadrive," as I agree we should call it, never would have happened were it not for the most subtle and arguably most surprising play of Stafford's young career.
Back up and recall that the Lions trailed by 13 points with 5 minutes, 36 seconds remaining in the game. It was fourth-and-2 at the Raiders' 8-yard line, and a field goal would have provided little boost to their comeback efforts.
The Lions arranged themselves in an empty backfield with Stafford in the shotgun. They had two receivers lined up on the left and two on the right. Both groupings had a safety over top, and tight end Brandon Pettigrew had safety Mike Mitchell aligned in man coverage.
Stafford surveyed the defense and made a silent decision before the play began.
"They had three down linemen and a linebacker," Stafford said, "and everybody else was double-covered. I'm sitting there thinking, 'I'm about as good of an option as anybody else.'"
Not only were the Raiders in a three-man front, but nose tackle Desmond Bryant was offset to the right of center Dominic Raiola. Middle linebacker Rolando McClain was lined up 6 yards off the line of scrimmage. The Raiders were practically begging Stafford to pull down the ball and run to his left.
I don't blame them, not when the alternative was Stafford looking for Johnson in the end zone. And while Stafford is an athletic runner, he rarely scrambles. In 26 previous starts, in fact, Stafford had 43 carries and converted a first down on 10 of them.
In this case, however, there was no hesitation. He took two steps back after grabbing the snap, allowing the pass rush to advance, and then took off behind left guard Rob Sims. Bryant further opened the hole by stunting toward the right side of the line, and Stafford cut inside of McClain at the 8-yard line before gaining the first down and falling at the 3.
"It was a pass play," Stafford said. "Big number 55 [McClain] was the only guy I had to get past. I didn't tell anybody I was going to run. I jus went up to the line of scrimmage and figured I had to make a play. Put my foot in the ground and went north."
Were it not for that decision, we aren't talking this week about the Lions' first opportunity to clinch a playoff berth in 12 seasons. Instead, we'd be figuring out longshot tiebreaker scenarios and shifting our gaze to the offseason. A seemingly simple 5-yard run was confirmation of an observation that had been brewing for years: The Lions have the coolest, most collected 23-year-old quarterback in the NFL.
Johnson has received plenty of credit, all of it deserved, for his role in Sunday's victory. But the quarterback is almost always the key player in a comeback victory, and as the chart shows, Stafford has already directed six efforts to overcome a fourth-quarter deficit in less than three seasons.
Stafford has thrown a stunning 22 touchdown passes in those six games. The Lions trailed by at least 13 points in five of them, and it's worth noting that half of them came on the road. Quarterbacks with strong arms and high character enter the NFL every season. Only a fraction of them play their best in adverse situations.
"He's young but he's seasoned," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "He's played a lot football in his life. High school, college. He started as a true freshman at the University of Georgia in the Southeast Conference. I mean, there's some big games involved there, too. He's been on track for this for a long time. He didn't switch positions and start playing quarterback when he came into the NFL. He's been in a lot of these situations before and that's why we drafted him. He's going to lead this team to a lot of wins."
To be sure, Stafford and the Lions still trailed by two scores even after the conversion. But he threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Titus Young on the next play, and on the "Megadrive," Stafford completed 5 of 7 passes for 91 yards and also threw a ball that resulted in a 17-yard pass-interference penalty. Most notably, Stafford understood the Lions needed downfield completions and managed to complete two -- for 21 and 48 yards to Johnson -- without forcing one pass.
"You need to [get] some chunks in there somewhere," Schwartz said. "You can't just check the ball down every single time. You're going to have to really zip some balls in. … There are not a whole lot of safe decisions when you're down six with no timeouts and 98 yards in front of you."
But on a half-dozen occasions already in his career, Stafford has demonstrated perhaps the rarest of qualities among NFL quarterbacks. He makes sound decisions under pressure -- even if they're sometimes a surprise.