Commentary

Lions a threat in the postseason?

Matthew Stafford has played well, but the quarterback picture in the NFC is daunting

Originally Published: December 19, 2011
By Vince Verhei | Football Outsiders
Matthew StaffordAP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezMatthew Stafford pulled off a huge comeback win against the Raiders on Sunday.

With 7:47 to go in the fourth quarter on Sunday, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was sacked and fumbled. Oakland Raiders linebacker Aaron Curry recovered the ball for a touchdown, putting his team up 27-14 and seemingly knocking the Lions out of the playoff picture. With his team's season on the line, Stafford stepped up to save the day, throwing for 143 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the next two Lions drives to lead Detroit to a 28-27 victory. It was the third time this season Stafford has overcome a double-digit deficit to win. But has Stafford established himself as an elite quarterback? How does he stack up next to his NFC playoff peers?

For the season, Stafford now ranks ninth among quarterbacks in DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement). That's the good news. The bad news is that five of the quarterbacks ranked above him are guys he'll likely have to beat to get to the Super Bowl. How does Stafford compare to those other quarterbacks in specific situations? We can answer that question using DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), which measures value per play. More information on DYAR and DVOA can be found here, but in a nutshell: yardage matters, first downs matter, consistency matters and avoiding turnovers matters a lot.

In alphabetical order, here are the six quarterbacks to whom we're comparing Stafford today:

Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Eli Manning, New York Giants
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers

While Tarvaris Jackson and the Seahawks or Caleb Hanie and the Bears still have mathematical hopes of reaching the playoffs, the NFC field will likely come from those seven teams (including Stafford and the Lions).

Stafford ranks sixth among that field in DVOA over the course of the season, but the beauty of DVOA is that we can separate it into a number of different categories. For starters, we can measure each passer's performance by quarter. Stafford is last among this group in first-quarter passing DVOA, fourth in the second quarter and third in the third quarter. However, despite his late-game heroics, he ranks just six in the fourth quarters and overtime. Stafford's big finishes are not guaranteed, and the NFC's other top quarterbacks are also capable of clutch end-of-game play.

We can further break DVOA down by, er, down. Stafford ranks second among this group (behind Rodgers) in first down passing DVOA, but slips to sixth place on second downs and a distant seventh place on third downs. The lesson here is that the Lions are better off passing early in drives, rather than running to set up makeable third downs. (DVOA accounts for yards needed for a new set of downs, so Stafford's bad showing here doesn't mean that he was left in third-and-long situations.)