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Niyo: Playoffs matter most in Stafford’s return home

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — So much remains unsettled about the Detroit Lions.

But one thing does not anymore, and that’s the quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who heads home to Dallas Monday night with a better sense of place — both in his life and in his career — even as his team still searches for its place in the NFC playoff race.

Nearing the end of his eighth NFL season, Stafford already owns most of the Lions’ career passing records. He has earned more than $100 million at the age of 28. He has endured career-threatening injuries and countless critiques of his game. But in what many pegged as a pivotal season for the Lions’ signal-caller, he has effectively ended any suspense about whether his future lies in Detroit or elsewhere.

Stafford has left little doubt about his value to the franchise this season, leading an NFL-record eight fourth-quarter comebacks to put his team on the verge of its first division title in 23 years — the Lions can sew up at least a wild-card berth with a win Monday night — and putting himself in the conversation for league MVP honors.

“I do think that he’s an unusual guy,” said Jim Caldwell, the Lions head coach who was brought here three years ago, in part, to help polish Stafford’s prolific talents. “He’s extremely tough, and I think that also has a trickle-down effect to our team. Not only that, in situations where things are a little tight and tough, and we’ve got to make a play or come from behind — or whatever it is — he’s got poise, he’s got focus. (His teammates) believe in him and when you’ve done it time and time again, it helps.”

It helps that he has been there and done that for the better part of a decade now in the NFL. And that he’s done it for more than half his life on a big stage, as he noted in a conference call Thursday with reporters from his hometown, recalling playing at the old Texas Stadium as 15-year-old sophomore in high school.

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“I think that kind of puts you in the spotlight early,” he said, “and lets you understand what it’s all about.”

Still, he admits, “It’s definitely been … a journey. I think everybody’s career is. Mine is no different. Obviously, I had some hardships early (with the Lions). But I’ve overcome those, and couldn’t have done it without teammates and coaches believing in me. It’s taken a lot of people to get to where I am right now.”

Business trip

And it has taken a lot of people in Detroit a long time to warm up to the idea he could be the one to get the Lions where they’ve never been: a Super Bowl.

Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. History strongly suggests the latter, of course. But it’s a safe bet the Lions’ new general manager, Bob Quinn, has seen enough in his first year in Detroit to wager another contract extension on the former.

Stafford’s current deal expires after next season, but the Lions are expected to try to a hammer out a new deal with their franchise quarterback before then — one that should make him the game’s highest-paid player, topping Andrew Luck’s recent five-year, $123 million extension in Indianapolis.

In the meantime, Stafford, still playing with a dislocated finger on his throwing hand, will make his 95th consecutive start Monday night — 97th including the playoffs — which ranks fourth among active NFL quarterbacks. And first by a country mile in Lions franchise history at the position.

It’ll be his seventh appearance on Monday Night Football, the last a near-perfect outing last December at New Orleans. And it’ll be his third start as an NFL quarterback at AT&T Stadium, where just last week his old high school, Highland Park, with the grandson of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones playing quarterback, won its first state title since Stafford’s senior year there in 2005.

“It’s really cool being a part of that,” said Stafford, whose ’05 title was the first for the Fighting Scots since 1957, the same year the Lions won their their last NFL championship. “Obviously, when we won the state championship it had been a pretty good while since we had won one before, so it was nice to kind of make that a real possibility for everybody again.”

But the real possibility of a playoff berth is what matters at the moment, and for Stafford, completing 66.3 percent of his passes and on pace for a sixth straight 4,000-yard season, that’ll mean capping off an MVP-caliber season with a strong finish. The regular-season finale against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers looms large, obviously, with the division title — and a home playoff opener — up for grabs.

 

Lions vs. Packers moved to Sunday night on NBC

But a postseason-clinching win Monday night against the Cowboys also would erase some of the memory of Stafford’s last game here, a controversial divisional playoff loss two seasons ago.

“I don’t think too much about the result of that one, to be honest with you,” said Stafford, who was 28-of-42 for 323 yards and a touchdown with two turnovers that afternoon. “It’s a new team, a new challenge. Obviously it’s a fantastic stadium, a great home-field advantage for those guys. And I really like coming home and playing in Dallas. It’s where I grew up. I played a lot of football in the state of Texas and in Dallas in my life. It’s a lot of fun going home, seeing friends and family.”

Putting down roots

But that’s a home away from home for Stafford and his wife, Kelly, who own a house on a lake in suburban Detroit. They were married in April 2015, and they left it to their two dogs — Champ and Marley — to break the news on Instagram that they’re expecting identical twin girls this spring. (Sawyer and Chandler are due in late March or early April.)

“It kind of puts things in perspective a little bit more for you,” said Stafford, who started dating Kelly when they were in college at Georgia. “I’m sure it will even more so when they’re here.”

But even now, as everyone talks about the strides Stafford has made on the field, it’s impossible to ignore the roots he is putting down in the community. If he has embraced structure on the field, he has found stability off it, too.

Last week, the Staffords continued their annual tradition of adopting a family in need for the holidays. This time it drew a bit more attention, as the couple delivered gifts and spent hours with the families of Myron Jarrett and Ken Steil, two Detroit police offers who were killed in the line of duty this year. But there were other families this Christmas, and some of Stafford’s friends and teammates — Dan Orlovsky, Sam Martin, Matt Prater — joined in the giving this week.

“The families that we visited this holiday have been great and appreciative,” Stafford said, “but as much as they’re getting out of it, seeing little kids that maybe just lost a father or a mother or whatever it was, have something to be happy about, it means a lot, too, to be able to give back this time of year.”

It’s just one of many philanthropic efforts Stafford and his wife have undertaken in recent years, including the $1 million pledge through his Score7 Charitable Foundation to help renovate what is now the S.A.Y Detroit Play Center at Lipke Park. That one resulted in a new football field named in his honor, but most others go unpublicized.

“With him, I do think that’s all part of who he is,” Caldwell said. “Just a tremendous teammate, his guys sense that and understand it, but then also he has great concern for the community. … He’s a generous guy, he’s giving, but he’s also highly motivated as well.”

And if home is where the heart is, it does feel like a decision has been made in Detroit, playoffs or not.

Lions vs. Cowboys

When: Monday, 8:30 p.m.

Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

TV / radio: Channel 7, ESPN / WJR 760

Records: Lions 9-5, Cowboys 12-2

Line: Cowboys by 6

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo