By: Will Burchfield
Lions fans are brimming with optimism after their team’s 2-0 start. Cups are spilling over with Honolulu blue Kool-Aid.READ MORE: Oxford Schools Superintendent Issues Statement After Tragedy In Texas
The dizziness in Detroit can be understood.
The Lions trounced the Cardinals in Week 1 and breezed by the Giants in Week 2, two conference foes who entered the season with high expectations. Matthew Stafford has done his thing — he’s an early favorite for MVP (!!) — the running game has made strides, and the defense has been unexpectedly stout.
Heading into Sunday’s matchup with the reigning NFC champs, the Lions are one of three unbeaten teams left in the NFC. The Falcons are one of the two others. It’s a benchmark game for Detroit (even if head coach Jim Caldwell would have you believe otherwise.)
On Friday, NBC sportscaster Mike Tirico joined the Jamie and Stoney Show on 97.1 The Ticket to talk about the upcoming clash. Spoiler: He’s drinking the Kool-Aid, too.
“If you do a quick scan of the NFC as of right now, the Lions are up there with that second tier of teams. Atlanta’s in the first tier,” said Tirico. “All we hang onto is the Atlanta end of the Super Bowl. Remember, they crushed people for the first 11 quarters of the playoffs. They were so dominant.
“If the (Lions) beat Atlanta Sunday, there is reason to believe. Even if they lose a close game to Atlanta, there’s reason to believe that, with health, this could be a really good football season.”
That caveat — with health — has begun to rear its ugly head. The Lions are already without left tackle Taylor Decker for at least the first six weeks of the season, and they lost four players to injury versus the Giants, including middle linebacker Jarrad Davis (concussion). Davis, center Travis Swanson (ankle), safety Tavon Wilson (shoulder) and running back Dwayne Washington (quad) have all sat out practice this week and look doubtful for Sunday’s game.
But as long as one guy’s on the field, Tirico might contend, the Lions have a chance. It’s their $27-million quarterback.
“Forget all the money. When I hear people call this station or hosts get on this station and say the Lions should move on from Matthew Stafford, I change the channel. That’s no disrespect to you guys or other hosts or callers, but if you’re around the NFL, if you watch these quarterbacks, Matthew Stafford’s really good,” Tirico said.
Stafford had one of the best seasons of his career in 2016, garnering MVP chatter before injuring his finger in December. So far, he’s picked up where he left off.READ MORE: Michigan Senate Blocks Gun Storage Vote
“Is he Brady? No, there’s one of those. Is he Brees? Getting closer, guys, he really is,” said Tirico. “He plays really well on a regular basis. He’s learning how to win in those big championship moments. I think you’re watching a guy grow because the people around him are a heck of a lot better than they used to be.”
Close to Brees? Really? The Saints quarterback has been to 10 Pro Bowls and won a championship. He’s the most accurate passer in NFL history. He’s destined for the Hall of Fame. And at 38, he’s still at the top of his game.
To mention Stafford in the same sentence, much less the same category, feels brash. But Tirico may have a point.
Compare the two quarterbacks’ respective numbers since 2015.
Stafford: 62 TD, 24 INT, 66.5 CMP %, 96.1 RAT.
Brees: 72 TD, 26 INT, 69 CMP %, 101.4 RAT.
Since Jim Bob Cooter took over as offensive coordinator midway through the 2015 season, Stafford’s passer rating is an even more impressive 98.6.
(For those wondering, Stafford’s record since 2015 is 18-16. Brees’ is 14-19. The usual caveats about not judging a quarterback based on wins apply.)
Tirico defended another scrutinized leader of the Lions.
“Jim Caldwell’s a good coach. They don’t win all these close games accidentally. Most NFL games are close, they have put time and research into game-management situations,” he said.
Eight of the Lions’ nine wins last season were one-score games. The offense thrives in pressure situations, and Caldwell is indeed to thank. He forces his players into uncomfortable scenarios in practice so that they’re not fazed when such scenarios arise in a game. Every coach does this, yes, but Caldwell seems to do so with extra emphasis.MORE NEWS: Detroit Pistons To Play Regular Season Game Against Chicago Bulls In Paris
Should the Lions find themselves in a fourth-quarter dogfight this Sunday, don’t be surprised if they pull it out. And if they do, fill up your cup.