For a while, the Lions were a curiosity, with freakishly good Calvin Johnson and controversial Ndamukong Suh and their rags-to-rising-riches story.
Now they’re gaining league-wide legitimacy, and they’re doing it because of Matthew Stafford. We knew how good Johnson was, and how good Suh and the defensive line were. But until Stafford could prove his worth over an entire, healthy season, the questions would linger.
Stafford has answered them emphatically, with what will be the best passing season in Lions history. I know, I know, that’s faint praise for a franchise that hasn’t had a Pro Bowl quarterback in almost 40 years (Greg Landry, 1972).
But the Lions are taking the giant step to legitimate contender status — and toward the playoffs — precisely as their quarterback is doing the same. Stafford has thrown for 4,145 yards, fifth-most in the NFL, and has 33 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions. He already has broken Scott Mitchell’s single-season franchise touchdown record, and easily should break Mitchell’s passing yardage record (4,338).
Until they get their top two running backs — Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure — back next season, and also solidify their secondary, the Lions will be a pass-first, pass-second, pass-third team. And while imbalance isn’t ideal, it wins a lot more than you realize in the NFL.
That’s the reason the Lions could be a dangerous wildcard in the playoffs. It used to be, if you couldn’t run the ball and couldn’t hammer people with your defense, you couldn’t last long in January. But look at the top teams in the league now.
Aaron Rodgers is having an incredible season with 4,360 yards and the Packers are 13-1, despite having a defense ranked 31st.
Drew Brees is having an incredible season with 4,780 yards and the Saints are 11-3, despite having a defense ranked 24th.
Tom Brady is having a typical Brady season with 4,593 yards and the Patriots are 11-3, despite having a defense ranked 32nd and last.
Stafford is only 23 and basically in his first full season as a starter, but he already has climbed into the second tier of NFL quarterbacks, below the big three and closing in on Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Matt Ryan. The Lions’ passing offense ranks fifth and their defense is 18th, middle of the pack.
I’m not declaring the Lions capable of a Super Bowl run this season. Really, I’m not. The eggnog hasn’t kicked in that severely yet.
I am saying their primary methods of attack — Stafford to Johnson, Stafford to Nate Burleson, Stafford to Titus Young, Stafford to Brandon Pettigrew, Stafford to Tony Scheffler — can be scary in today’s playoffs. And Stafford is grabbing the leadership reins exactly as he should.
There’s a reason the Lions have won an NFL-record four games this season after trailing by at least 13 points. They’re certainly not a complete team, but they have a young quarterback who heats up quickly and is just getting started. No matter what happens the rest of the season, it’s clear the Lions have made the leap from oddity to legitimacy, with more time to climb.