HOUSTON -- Perceptions are fickle, so much so that they can allow for a quarterback to be compared to a maligned underachiever one week only for opinions to drastically change if that quarterback spearheads a string of victories.
Following the Lions' 1-3 start, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford was in some circles being aligned with Bears signal caller Jay Cutler, whose abundant talent has for years failed to deliver on notable team success. Stafford has the statistical profile of an elite quarterback, but the Lions have sputtered along for years, and their sluggish start to this season provided room for those critical of Stafford to sound off.
Three wins in three games later and Stafford is earning raves. He ranks third in the NFL in passer rating (105.7), fourth in touchdown passes (15) and eighth in passing yards (1,914). Despite the Lions' pass-heavy offense, Stafford has thrown just four interceptions.
The accumulation of those numbers has yielded MVP discussion as the Lions visit the Houston Texans Sunday at NRG Stadium.
"I really don't pay too much attention to it," Stafford said. "I just care about how I perform for the guys in this locker room and this coaching staff and the owners and the people affected by the Lions. That's what I care about. Preparing as hard as I possibly can to play well for those people."
Though Stafford is deflecting praise, he has been instrumental in the Lions' winning streak. Detroit has defeated the Eagles, Rams and Redskins by a total of seven points, with Stafford leading fourth-quarter surges to victory in each contest.
Last Sunday against the Redskins, Stafford completed an 18-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin with 16 seconds to play to cap a six-play, 75-yard drive. His late-game mastery of the offense is as responsible for the MVP talk as his aggregate numbers, and the more Stafford shines down the stretch, the more praise he earns.
"Well one thing, I think his preparation is such that he really prepares himself for those kinds of moments," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "Number two, obviously he has some unique talents and focus where he doesn't back down from real tough situations. Number three I think his leadership just in terms of getting guys to rally around him particularly in those crucial moments. He kind of has a knack for that."
Somewhat lost amid the furor of Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler delivering an embarrassing effort in his Denver homecoming on Monday night was another subpar performance by the Texans run defense. The Broncos, who'd amassed 309 rushing yards in their previous four games combined, gouged Houston for 190 yards and two rushing touchdowns in a 27-9 win that snapped their two-game losing skid.
"Well, I think any time an offense is able to run the football, it makes it very difficult on a defense," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "It does. It does affect your game plan and we have to people use the phrase, 'Go back to the drawing board'. I don't know if that's what it is. I think every team is different."
"The way that Detroit runs the ball is a lot different than the way that Denver runs the ball. We're going to have to really study hard here on Detroit and figure out what we need to do to stop the run because it has to get a lot better."
The Texans are ranked 29th in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 135.4 yards per game. That's a far departure from last season when they finished 10th in the league allowing 99.8 rushing yards per game. Houston has dealt with its share of injuries on defense at all three levels, with of course the most notable absence being All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt, whose renown is linked to his pass rushing abilities.
Even without Watt the Texans shouldn't be this porous. And while their offensive woes are legitimate with Osweiler at the controls, their inability to muster a solid front against opposing rushing attacks is as problematic as the issue at quarterback.
"There's no excuses," O'Brien said. "They don't cancel the games when there's injuries, so we have to all do a better job. Again, it probably gets boring listening to me. Coaches and players, we all just need to do a better job of playing and coaching better on Sundays."