The NFC North is becoming impossible to figure out. A month ago, the Minnesota Vikings appeared to be running away with the division. Then the Vikings began to fade just as the Green Bay Packers began to get it together and then struggle again.
Through it all, though, a team has lurked on the fringes—not good enough to merit consideration as a contender, but not bad enough to fall too far off the pace.
Well, that team has now won four of their last five games. After downing the Vikings 22-16 in overtime Sunday, the Detroit Lions aren't on the fringes any longer. They are in the thick of things in the topsy-turvy NFC North. And in leading the Lions into the chase, quarterback Matthew Stafford has entered a fringe of a different sort.
The fringe of the conversation regarding the NFL's most valuable player in 2016.
Even though the Vikings had dropped two in a row entering Week 9 (including an ugly loss in Chicago on Halloween), not many pundits gave the Lions much of a chance on the road. Detroit was coming off a listless home loss to the Houston Texans, and the Vikings won both meetings between the two teams last season.
As Kyle Meinke of MLive.com pointed out, in those two games against the Vikings in 2015, Stafford was sacked eight times and hit 11 more. In fact, the eighth-year veteran took so many shots in those games that he told Meinke he developed amnesia.
"I don't remember [those hits]," he quipped sarcastically. "Obviously it's more fun when you get hit less, but it's part of football. Those kinds of games are going to happen."
On Sunday, it was a different story. Stafford was hit only three times and sacked but once. With time to throw, Stafford passed for 219 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the NFL's fourth-ranked pass defense, including a 28-yard strike to Golden Tate in overtime that won the game.
Those late-game heroics are becoming a trend with Stafford this season. After the Vikings took the lead with less than 30 seconds to play Sunday, Stafford was able to lead the Lions into position for kicker Matt Prater to tie things up from 58 yards out.
Then, just as he did against Washington, the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles, Stafford put the Lions on his shoulders and got the job done, finding Tate along the sideline for the game-winning score.
Now, nine weeks into the season, a Lions team no one considered a factor in the NFC North in 2016 is just that. At 5-4, the Lions trail the floundering Vikings by just half a game. After the Green Bay Packers fell at home to the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, the Lions are all alone in second place, half a game ahead of the team most picked to win the North in 2016.
|NFC North Standings|
|Green Bay Packers||4-4-0||3-2-0||1-2-0||1|
|As of Week 9|
And as Kevin Patra of NFL.com wrote, there's no question who the key to Detroit's surprising success has been:
The Lions have trailed in the fourth quarter of every single game this season. They've won five of those contests. Since 2011, no quarterback has more fourth-quarter comebacks than Stafford (19). It was a struggle for Stafford much of the game -- including his first interception in five games -- but with his back against the wall, the quarterback remained calm and made every single play necessary to win.
For his part, Stafford downplayed his individual achievements (and the MVP buzz growing around him) while speaking with Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com.
"It's not on my mind," Stafford said. "I don't pay too much attention to it. I've had 5,000-yard seasons and 40 touchdowns and haven't sniffed the Pro Bowl for it, so I don't really care. I just go and play for the guys in that locker room. That's all that matters to me."
Stafford may not be paying attention to that buzz, but that doesn't mean it isn't there. Stafford entered Week 9 eighth in the NFL in passing yards, sixth in touchdowns and fourth in passer rating among quarterbacks with over 100 attempts this season. His touchdown-to-interception stat is a robust plus-13.
|Matthew Stafford 2016|
|Per Pro Football Reference|
And most importantly, the 28-year-old has had his fingerprints all over every one of the Lions' wins in 2016.
Are Stafford's numbers enough to make him any sort of favorite for the MVP award? Hardly—not in a year where Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons is posting video-game stats and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots is trying hard to put MVP voters in the awkward position of having to consider a player who started the season on suspension.
But Stafford has played his way onto the MVP radar, and it's going to be awfully hard to overlook him if the Lions continue winning games and somehow find their way into the postseason.
No, Matthew Stafford hasn't been perfect in 2016. But he's been pretty darn good. Good enough for the Lions to be much better than anyone expected.
If that keeps up, a trip to the playoffs might not be the only surprise news in the Motor City this winter.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter: @IDPSharks.