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For Lions to be elite, it starts with Matthew Stafford

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There's every reason for Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate to be riled up about his team catching the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North, following a season when the Lions were as close as they'd been in years. The Lions went to the visitor's locker room down seven at halftime of a Week 17 division title game at Lambeau Field, with Aaron Rodgers' ailing left calf putting his status in doubt. If there were ever a moment to end a 23-year losing streak at Lambeau and overtake the Packers in the division, it seemed the moment had arrived.

What happened after that will probably live on in Packers lore: Rodgers walked out to a thunderous ovation early in the third quarter, directed two touchdown drives and snuck across the goal line for the decisive score. That touchdown was set up by a botched handoff between Matthew Stafford and Joique Bell, washing out the momentum the Lions had gained from a blocked field goal on the previous play. And as if for good measure, Stafford was flagged for intentional grounding in the end zone, putting the Packers up 16 with 2:32 to go.

That's why, when Tate talks about the Lions being elite and catching the Packers in the NFC North, his words might as well be directed at the person throwing him the ball.

For all the hand-wringing over the Lions' defense following Haloti Ngata's arrival to help replace Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, Detroit's single largest hope of catching the Packers rests with Stafford. There's a strong argument to be made that the Packers' dominance over the NFC North -- four straight division titles, six consecutive playoff appearances and a Super Bowl title -- is simply because they have Rodgers and the rest of the division doesn't. That remains the biggest gulf between the Packers and the rest of the division, and if the Lions want to be elite, it starts with their quarterback playing that way.

Stafford has directed the Lions to the playoffs twice in four years, ending a 12-year postseason drought. But so far, the top pick in the 2009 draft has only looked like the guy who's good enough to get the Lions there, not put them over the top. He directs a prolific passing game that has allowed him to attempt more than 600 passes in each of the last four seasons, but his completion rate has never been better than 63.5 percent. And perhaps the most damning stat of all is this: In 18 road games against winning teams, including last year's wild-card playoff trip to Dallas, Stafford is winless.

With Bell turning 29 in August and Calvin Johnson turning 30 in September, it's incumbent upon the Lions to strike while their talent remains intact. They have the weapons to be prolific on offense, and even though their defense lost some punch with Suh's departure, the group should still be solid after boasting the NFL's best run defense and leading the NFC North in most categories last year.

But the fact the Lions didn't score more than 20 points in any of their final four games is troubling, and the Minnesota Vikings have designs on a playoff push after the return of Adrian Peterson and the addition of Mike Wallace. If the Lions have a chance of making good on Tate's proclamation and becoming elite, it will start with Stafford moving himself in that direction.