There’s something about the 2-yard line, 98 yards to go and a quarterback trotting onto the field with his team trailing late in the fourth quarter.
It’s been kind of the gold standard of quarterback challenges since a fella named Elway attached “The Drive” to the cover letter of his Hall of Fame résumé on a cold, snowy field in Cleveland back on Jan. 11, 1987.
The stakes weren’t as high for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford when Jeff Locke’s beautiful 57-yard punt handcuffed Detroit’s offense to the 2-yard line with 5:05 left and the Vikings leading 13-10 at Ford Field on Thursday.
No, the Super Bowl wasn’t on the line, as it was for Elway. But first place on Thanksgiving Day in a division the Lions haven’t won in 23 years was.
No, Stafford wasn’t on the road, as Elway was. But he was facing a better defense.
Yes, Vikings defenders have gotten a little sloppy the past five weeks. But it’s not like they’re walking around Winter Park lighting the curtains on fire either. They’d held Detroit to 10 points through 55 minutes and still rank No. 2 in scoring defense (17.5).
So, yeah, this was some challenge for Stafford. With six fourth-quarter comeback wins this season, he was tied for third most since 1960, according to profootballreference.com.
Six is great at all. But to reach seven from the 2-yard line on national television, well, that was the football gods asking Stafford to slip on a straitjacket and be lowered by his ankles into a tube filled with water.
Let’s see you escape this, young man! And, by the way, reigning league MVP Cam Newton once faced these guys from his 2-yard line and could have filed a police report on the end zone mugging that ensued.
Stafford’s response? He completed six of eight passes for 61 yards, including a 29-yarder while being knocked down against a seven-man rush on third-and-8.
Stafford got Auto-Matt-ic Prater close enough to kick a 48-yard field goal. The Vikings offense blinked, Auto-Matt-ic kicked the 40-yard game-winner as time expired, and dejected Purple fans went back to counting up all their injured players.
Meanwhile, Stafford quietly joined Archie Manning’s sons in a fraternity of three. Peyton, Eli and Stafford are tied for the most fourth-quarter comebacks in a season (seven) since 1960. Peyton did it for the 2009 Colts, who made the Super Bowl. Eli did it for the 2011 Giants, who won the Super Bowl.
Stafford is 28, the Lions’ second-oldest offensive starter, and he still has five games left to break and extend the record. He also has 24 career fourth-quarter comeback wins to rank tied for 16th among quarterbacks since 1960.
Chances are Stafford will get more comeback opportunities this season since Detroit is the first team in NFL history to have its first 11 games decided by seven points or fewer. It also has trailed in the fourth quarter of every game, although the defense has now held five straight opponents to 20 points or fewer for the first time since 1991.
With so much time between NFL games, we outside-the-white-lines people have way too much time to rank and label players. Every week, some of us ask and argue whether a quarterback is “elite,” “top-tier,” “a gunslinger,” “a system guy” or “a game manager.”
Rather than rank or label Stafford, let’s just say he’s one tough kid with a great arm, a fast brain and an ideal feel for the game that’s been on display as Detroit caught and blew by the Vikings.
Down one with 37 seconds left against the Colts, he went 3-for-4 for 50 yards. Auto-Matt-ic kicked a 43-yarder.
Down seven against the Rams, he produced 10 points in 10 minutes by completing eight of 12 for 82 yards and a touchdown.
Down four with 1:05 left against Washington, he went 3-for-5 for 61 yards and a touchdown.
Trailing the Vikings twice in three weeks, he won both games, including one in which he was down three on the road with 23 seconds left, no timeouts and the ball at his 25-yard line.
Asked Thursday about trotting onto the field with the ball at his 2-yard line, Stafford sounded upset he didn’t do more.
“I was disappointed we didn’t go 98 and score,” he said. “I wanted to so bad. But the No. 1 thing is to get it out from our own end line. We did that in two plays and then now the air’s back in the balloon, and let’s go.”