Last year the Detroit Lions walked off Century Link Field in Seattle short of their ultimate goal for what feels like the millionth time for the team’s fans.
The Lions had just lost 26-6 to the Seahawks in an NFC Wild Card matchup on the road, which should have been at home, and at one point during the 2016 season, shouldn’t have existed.
The Lions fought hard at every moment in 2016.
One of the best stories in football, Detroit battled back from a 1-3 start to win six of their next seven games en route to a 9-4 record and a two-game lead over the Packers and Vikings for the NFC North crown, with just three games to go.
Much like other big games in Matthew Stafford’s career, the Lions lost their next three games, including a Week 17 de facto NFC North title bout at home versus the Packers. The loss forced them to go to Seattle, where they lost their fourth straight game of the season. Hardly the ending this team envisioned at 9-4.
Led by Stafford, the Lions produced an NFL-record 8 fourth-quarter comebacks last season, meaning many of their games could go either way, and Stafford delivered.
But where Stafford most struggles is big games against above-average teams. Stafford is 6-46 in his career against teams finishing above .500. That includes an 0-3 record in the postseason.
Stafford is a good enough quarterback that the Lions would be silly to let him go in this passers market, hence his five-year extension worth $135 million, the most lucrative contract in NFL history.
But Stafford is also far enough down the passer rankings for the Lions to wonder if Stafford is good enough to lead the Lions to the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
After a somewhat-surprising 2-0 start, Detroit has a chance to turn some heads when the defending-NFC champion Falcons arrive this Sunday afternoon.
But even with a win there, the Lions have five tough games ahead.
If the first two weeks are any indication, the Lions have a legitimate shot at the NFC North crown once again. The Packers again look like a team entirely built around Aaron Rodgers, with the rest of the team’s personnel mediocre at best.
But even if the Packers struggle early, Rodgers will make his surge. Last year the Packers were a helpless 4-6 bunch before rattling off eight consecutive wins until losing in Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.
That’s what good teams do, they find a way. That’s the level of success the Lions are trying to achieve. It begins this Sunday versus Atlanta, and carries over into a five-game span which may decide the Lions season.
For Stafford and the Lions, the opportunity is there to prove they belong among the NFC’s true contenders.