GREEN BAY – A flashback to the first time Matthew Stafford set foot on Lambeau Field's legendary turf as an active player for the Detroit Lions is part memory of one of the greatest performances of his career and partly a look at his future.
My Final Thoughts for Week 17 as the Lions and Green Bay Packers close out what has been a wretched season for both teams start with Stafford – the memory and the future – with four keys for the Lions today, Random Thoughts and how I'm sticking with my pick
Injuries that limited him to 13 games kept Stafford from playing at Lambeau in his first two seasons.
His first start at Lambeau was the final game of 2011, and left behind footprints with a record that still stands.
The Lions had wrapped up a wild card playoff berth with a 10-5 record going into the game. The outcome would determine whether they would start the playoffs on the road against the New York Giants with a win or the New Orleans Saints with a loss.
The Lions lost, 45-41, but Stafford showed up big in the game. He passed for 520 yards and five touchdowns. He had another TD pass dropped, and still another called back that would have been a touchdown under current rules governing instant replays.
The passing yards were – and still are – the most ever by a visiting player against the Packers at Lambeau.
Unfortunately for the Lions, the defense must have missed the team charter. The Packers rested Aaron Rodgers and started backup Matt Flynn, who torched the Lions for 480 yards and six TDs.
Stafford's first full season as a starter in 2011 produced 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns and sent him on the way as one of the most prolific passers in history.
Seven years later, with another season-ending game at Lambeau, that game and what Stafford has accomplished have been overshadowed by what's been a down season for him and the Lions. He has passed for 3,511 yards, 19 TDs, 11 interceptions and a passer rating of 88.7.
That's after a 2017 season when he was among the league leaders in most key categories, among them 4,446 yards passing, 29 TDs and a passer rating of 99.3.
Careers and a player's value do not last on memories alone. Commentary is fair game, and Stafford and the offense have come under criticism this season. There also has been speculation that the Lions might – or should – trade Stafford after this season.
What cannot be denied is that the offense has been limited by a depleted support cast this season.
The state of the personnel, and Stafford's value, can be summed up a comment by an unnamed personnel executive quoted this week by veteran Packers beat writer and columnist Bob McGinn.
"He's still a good quarterback, but you have to look at what he's playing with," the executive said. "They just don't have a lot of juice on offense."
Stafford reiterated in his weekly media session this week his long-time wish to play his entire career in Detroit, and head coach Matt Patricia came out with a strong endorsement of him in response to direct questions.
"I think the world of the guy," Patricia said, among other things.
He should. One bad season, for whatever reason, should not send the Lions scrambling to replace a franchise quarterback who turns 31 in February and has many prime seasons ahead of him.
Four keys for the Lions:
Win first down: It's important for both teams, and it favors the Packers. On offense they average 5.78 yards to 4.87 for the Lions. On defense, the Packers give up 5.95 to 6.05. The key difference is on offense – almost a full yard more for the Packers, who like to use the run-pass option on first down. They even do it when backed up.
Turnovers: They were the key to the first game. The Lions recovered three fumbles and did not commit a turnover. Neither team has been good this year. The Lions are minus six, with only 13 takeaways – six interceptions and seven fumble recoveries. The Packers are plus one, but with only 15 takeaways – seven interceptions and eight fumble recoveries.
Pass defense: Two major breakdowns at the end of the first half turned last week's game in Minnesota's favor. One was a 40-yard catch by Adam Thielen on a broken coverage. The other was Kyle Rudolph's Hail Mary catch for a TD on the last play of the half. Neither one should have happened. And remember – Aaron Rodgers in the master of the Hail Mary. Make it Fail Mary. Better yet, don't let it get to that point.
Kicking game: Kicker Matt Prater gives the Lions the advantage in every game.
View photos from Detroit Lions practice on Friday, Dec. 28, 2018.
On the run defense: It's the Lions' most improved unit. It gave up an average of 142.5 yards in the first five games, and 82.1 in the last seven.
On Kenny Golladay: Having 1,060 receiving yards in his second season is no small accomplishment.
The leader in recent seasons is Germane Crowell, drafted in the second round in 1998. He had 1,338 yards in 1999. Calvin Johnson is next with 1,331 yards in his second season after 756 as a rookie in 2007. Herman Moore had an 11-catch rookie season in 1991 and 966 yards on 51 catches in 1992.
On Packers' plunge: With a 6-8-1 record after going 7-9 last year, the Packers will have two straight losing seasons for the first time since 1990-91. Brett Favre arrived in a trade in 1992. Having 27 seasons with Favre or Aaron Rodgers at quarterback goes a long way to having winning seasons.
On Aaron Rodgers: He's been on the griddle with some Packers media because of the team's losing record. That's with 25 TD passes and two interceptions.
Sticking with my pick: I see the score being closer than most people do, and the Lions having a higher point total. Despite the doubters, I think the Lions will find the way to the end zone.
Packers 31, Lions 27.