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Matthew Stafford injury: What it could mean for the Detroit Lions

Unhealthy Stafford could devastate starving franchise

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DETROIT – The Lions polished off their eighth win in nine games Sunday to maintain their lead in the NFC North Division and stay on track for another trip to the playoffs. But an injury to star quarterback Matthew Stafford has left a cloud of doubt over one of the NFL's most starved franchises.

It would be unfair to the say the Lions are complete strangers to the postseason -- they earned wildcard spots twice over the last five seasons and look well on their way to making it two playoff appearances in three years under Jim Caldwell. But as one of only four NFL franchises to never play in the Super Bowl and with only one playoff win in the last 50 years, Detroit is desperate to put a championship-caliber team in Ford Field.

This season's Detroit Lions weren't exactly what you would call a "Super Bowl contender." They have holes at many key positions -- like offensive line and linebacker -- they can't run the football and they've trailed in the fourth quarter 12 times in 13 games.

Despite all of their shortcomings, however, the Lions have been quietly positioning themselves for a home playoff game. They hold a two-game lead over the Vikings and Packers in the NFC North with only three games to play. Even a 1-2 finish would likely be enough to send a playoff game to Ford Field.

As the hottest team in the NFL, the Lions are likely two wins away from earning a first-round bye in the playoffs. Imagine that -- the Lions having a playoff bye. Thanks in part to a weak NFC, it's a realistic possibility. Only the Cowboys have more wins in the NFC than the Lions, who will grapple with the likes of Seattle, Atlanta and Tampa Bay for the No. 2 seed.

If the Lions somehow earned a first-round bye, who knows how far they could advance in the playoffs. In a conference without a dominant team underneath Dallas, it's not impossible that the Lions could win a home playoff game and suddenly find themselves in the NFC championship. Whether that game happens in Dallas, or in Detroit if the Cowboys are upset, anything can happen in a winner-take-all game of that magnitude.

Are the Lions one of the two best teams in the NFC? Probably not. They might be more accurately placed around No. 5 or 6.

So how did they end up in position to fight for a division title? One player -- Matthew Stafford.

Stafford has risen to an elite level this season, completing 66.7 percent of his passes for 3,447 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He ranks among the NFL's top 10 quarterbacks in completion percentage, passing yards and quarterback rating and has been the best in the league at winning games in the fourth quarter.

While most of the team has struggled with inconsistencies this season, Stafford has been good enough to win almost every week. Early in the season, the defense got shredded by the likes of Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers and Case Keenum. The wide receivers have had problems with dropped passes throughout the year, and the running game is one of the weakest in the league.

Yet somehow, Stafford has led this team from 1-3 to 9-4. It's the Lions' best chance to host a playoff game this millennium, and it's all because of Number 9.

VideoIs it time to believe in the Detroit Lions?

Think about how small the margin off error has been for the Lions. They needed a 43-yard field goal with four seconds left to beat the Colts in Week 1 after blowing a 21-3 lead. Three losses later, Matt Prater did it again, knocking in a game-winning field goal with 1:28 left. Against the Rams, the Lions scored 10 points in the final 6:02 to pull out a three-point win. Stafford hit Anquan Boldin with 16 seconds left the following week to clinch a 20-17 win over Washington.

After a loss in Houston, Stafford got the Lions into field goal position in under 23 seconds against Minnesota to force overtime, and the Lions topped the Vikings. Against Jacksonville, a late interception ended the Jags' chances to tie the game in the final minute.

When Thanksgiving Day rolled around, it was more of the same. Prater knocked in a field goal as the clock expired to give the Lions another win.

Sunday was just the latest example of Stafford's late-game heroics, as he turned a broken play into a seven-yard touchdown scamper that gave the Lions a win over Chicago.

Chart: Matthew Stafford career trends

 

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In eight of their nine wins, the Lions were just barely good enough to come out on top. That's the difference between being a potential division champion and battling for a top-five draft pick.

If Stafford had been just a little bit worse in any of those games -- missing one extra throw or making one incorrect read -- the Lions might not be where they are today. For that reason, they can't afford any kind of drop-off as they enter the home stretch of their schedule.

The Lions' final three games is the toughest stretch on their schedule -- visiting the two best teams record-wise in the NFC and finishing at home against the red-hot Packers. The New York Giants are 6-1 at home this season and coming off a win over the 11-2 Cowboys. Dallas hasn't lost at home since their Sept. 11 opener, winning five in a row. The Packers are coming off a 38-10 dismantling of Seattle -- one of the best teams in the league.

Even with a two-game division lead, the Lions can't afford to lose all three of their remaining games, which means Stafford will have to be near-perfect again to get the job done.

Fans saw Sunday what could happen with a Stafford that wasn't completely healthy. After injuring his right middle finger at the end of the first quarter, he threw two interceptions -- including a pick-six -- and the Lions nearly lost to a last-place team.

Stafford is among the most durable players in the NFL, starting every single game for the Lions since 2011 despite taking a pounding behind bad offensive lines year after year. He'll try to play with his injured finger down the stretch, wearing a glove and fighting through the pain, and he can't afford to be anything other than what he's been all season.

If he's not, the Lions could be in serious trouble, and this year, they actually have something to lose.