- Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN Staff Writer
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Margaret Stafford had been anxiously awaiting her son's game against the San Diego Chargers and hoped to lighten the mood before a contest that could clinch the Lions' first playoff berth in 12 years. When Stafford glanced down at the message, he had to be amused by his mother's sense of humor. All she'd written was a single question: "Do you think Santa will understand a comfortable lead with time left in the fourth quarter?"
You couldn't blame Mama Stafford, either. Like every other Lions fan this season, she'd watched her boy lead a team that seemed most comfortable playing with its back against the wall and the game in serious doubt. Stafford had led four comeback wins already but, as it turned out, there would be no such suspense in Detroit's 38-10 victory over San Diego. The more salient question for the Lions quickly became how they'd handle life in the playoffs -- and just how far their third-year quarterback could take them in what has become his breakout season.
Many people expected big things from Detroit this fall, as the 10-6 Lions were a trendy pick to go from nobodies to playoff contenders. What everybody realized was that such a leap wasn't going to happen without Stafford playing at a high level, which he's certainly done with a team-record 5,038 passing yards and 41 touchdowns.
"It definitely feels nice to be thinking about another game right now," Stafford said. "Hopefully, we can keep it moving and find a way to keep winning. We had the talent. I just knew that if I could stay healthy, we could play good football."
Reshaping a franchise
His success also has plenty to do with how he's helped change the dismal culture around the Lions. When he arrived in 2009 as the top pick in that year's NFL draft, he was joining a team that was literally so clueless about winning that it had lost every game a season earlier. Now, as Stafford noted, the Lions have more talent, experience and attitude than at any point in his time in the league.
Such assets will be huge because the Lions will face a stern test Saturday night: a trip to New Orleans to meet the NFC South champion Saints. The last time these teams met, on Dec. 4, New Orleans walked away with a 31-17 win. This time around, the Lions are hoping their familiarity with the raucous Superdome and the presence of a gifted quarterback might lead to a different result against an opponent that has won eight straight games.
"In the playoffs, you take [wins] any way you can," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "You take them 3-0 or 63-62. But we certainly have confidence in [Stafford's] ability to score along with the other guys on offense."
Thanks to injuries and a decimated running game, the Lions have been relying on Stafford to win shootouts for much of the past four games. He has responded by averaging 377.8 passing yards in those contests while throwing 14 touchdown passes and two interceptions. The Lions won three of those games -- including a 28-27 victory in Oakland that resulted from Stafford's last-minute, 6-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson -- and they could've defeated Green Bay in Week 17 if their defense had shown up in a 45-41 loss. Stafford threw for 520 yards and five touchdowns in that defeat.
The game ultimately ended when Packers cornerback Sam Shields gave Green Bay its second interception of Stafford, but the lasting image of that contest should've been Stafford's postgame body language. His displeasure was apparent in everything from the way he trudged off the field to how glumly he strolled out of the locker room after his news conference.
The Lions should've been upset about blowing a chance to improve their playoff seeding from sixth to fifth. But Stafford clearly had other intentions that day, specifically wanting to stick it to the defending Super Bowl champs.
Even if the Lions had been able to draw the New York Giants instead of the Saints in the opening round, any opposing defense will be facing a quarterback who is looking far more seasoned than his age (he's 23) would suggest. Stafford said his maturity comes from "playing more. It's like seeing a pitcher the second time around in baseball. You have to learn fast."
Green Bay cornerback Tramon Williams agreed, saying, "You can see the difference in him. When he was a rookie, we knew that if we pressured him, he would make a mistake. Now you see him moving safeties with his eyes and making adjustments at the line. He's definitely not doing things to hurt them anymore."
"The most impressive thing about Matt is his toughness," said Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson. "It's one thing to be a pro passer but he's got a certain grit to him. Whether he's in the middle of a drive or in the huddle, he's always letting us know that he's going to do whatever it takes to get things done. He plays quarterback but his personality is more like a linebacker."
That explains why the 6-foot-2, 232-pound Stafford played with a fractured right hand during a 37-13 loss to Chicago on Nov. 13. After throwing the third of four interceptions in that contest, Stafford grabbed Bears defensive back D.J. Moore and flung him down during the return. That move resulted in a brief scuffle between Stafford and Moore and a $7,500 fine from the league for the quarterback. It also wasn't something he had to do to prove his toughness.
Stafford has had a hard-charging approach to sports since the moment he started playing them in Highland Park, Texas. He was a high school standout in baseball and football, but he also had a drive and focus that belied his youth. When Stafford decided to give up baseball prior to his junior season, he told his father, John, that he might get six ground balls a game as a shortstop but that in football, he could handle the ball every play -- and better dictate the outcome.
Stafford brought that same approach to the University of Georgia -- where he started as a freshman. "We've always let him go at his own pace and he's always been on a fast track," John Stafford said. "He always projected himself that way."
That confidence made the Lions certain Stafford could help them resurrect a moribund franchise. This was an organization that had such a sorry quarterback history that 24 men now have started at the position since Stafford was born in 1988. You'd have to go back even further to find one deemed worthy of making the Pro Bowl -- Greg Landry in 1976 -- and Stafford's omission this season seemed to infuriate most everybody around the franchise except him.
"That's not a big concern at this time of year," he said. "Right now it's about the playoffs."
A Stafford-led run in the playoffs would help combat the Curse of Bobby Layne, which has haunted the franchise since the 1950s. Layne is considered the greatest QB and leader in franchise history.
Stafford and Layne hail from the same high school. Perhaps that's a good omen for long-suffering Lions fans.
Stafford is taking nothing for granted these days, mainly because his first two seasons were so frustrating. He played in only 10 games in 2009 before sustaining a right shoulder injury that required season-ending surgery. A year later, Stafford injured the same shoulder in a season-opening loss to Chicago. Though he managed to play in two more games that season, he called that setback the lowest point of his career.
"It was disheartening because he'd worked so hard to prepare for that second season," Margaret Stafford said. "But he's always had such strong character. He didn't whine or cry about it. He said it was what it was. It wasn't the happiest year of his life but I was proud of his resolve."
The lone upside of Stafford's abbreviated seasons was the time they afforded him to study the game. The Lions' coaches always have praised his meticulous nature --
"Little things really matter to Matt because if he doesn't do them, big things don't happen," said offensive coordinator Scott Linehan -- but his approach to his downtime was even more revealing.
When Stafford wasn't rehabilitating his surgically repaired shoulder, he was attending meetings, studying film and running through game-day scenarios while standing on the sideline.
"That time away turned out to be a blessing for him," Burleson said. "He started seeing the game in ways that make people say, 'I can't believe someone that young is doing what he's doing.'"
"I just tried to immerse myself in the offense," Stafford said. "I was here for every game and I didn't go back home [to Texas]. I had a chance to play and a chance to sit and it turned out that 50 percent of my first two seasons was spent watching from the sidelines."
Still, there were plenty of moments when Stafford displayed what gave the Lions so much hope in him. As a rookie he threw for a 422 yards and five touchdowns in a 38-37 victory over Cleveland, an effort that was all the more impressive because Stafford threw the game-winning touchdown pass despite having a separated right shoulder. In his first game back from injury in 2010, Stafford lit up the Washington Redskins for four scores in a 37-25 win. After watching Detroit go 6-10, he wasted no time re-establishing his promise this season.
Along with throwing seven touchdown passes in Detroit's first two wins, Stafford helped his team to comeback victories over Minnesota (erasing a 20-point halftime deficit) and Dallas (after trailing 27-3 early in the third quarter).
"Matt's development is dependent on the development of the team around him," Schwartz said. "Matt played at a very high level last year in the little bit of time that he was able to play through the injuries he's had. But as we've developed the team around him -- more weapons on offense, a better defense, things like that -- you see Matt looking like's developed more but it's more the team developing around him."
That talent includes a transcendent Pro Bowl receiver in Calvin Johnson (96 receptions, 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns), tight end Brandon Pettigrew (83 receptions) and two other shifty, reliable targets in Burleson (73) and rookie Titus Young (48). Stafford has used those weapons to lead a team that averages 29.6 points and 396.1 yards per game. If the Lions had a little more balance, they could've easily won two or three more games. As it stands, they'll have to continue riding Stafford's talent as far as they can go.
Regardless of what happens this postseason, what the Lions won't do is forget how far they've come with Stafford under center. The scene at the end of that Chargers win is critical proof of that. Midway through the second half, fans broke into a chant of "PLAY-OFFS! PLAY-OFFS!" and the players rewarded them by circling the field and slapping hands after the win.
As Margaret Stafford looked down on her boy from the seats that night, she thought about how far he'd come with this team. At that point three years ago, you wouldn't have had a hard time counting the number of fans still seated and there surely was no reason to hear what they might say.
As much as Stafford likes to play down his success -- "I just want to win games and I don't care how it gets done" -- he has to feel good about his role in that. He's gone from wondering why a guy who'd never been hurt could suddenly turn so fragile to believing the Lions are on the cusp of bigger and better things.
As Lions tight end Tony Scheffler said, "There are some quarterbacks that, when you get in the huddle, you know they have it. He's proven he's one of those guys."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.