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O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: How the Lions got to 7-4

Before he departed Ford Field on Thanksgiving Day to begin a welcome three-day break from the NFL schedule, Tahir Whitehead was asked what it would feel like to resume practice Monday with the Detroit Lions in first place in the NFC North.

Whitehead's answer was short and to the point – and entirely predictable.

"When we come in Monday, we'll be looking at one game," he said. "That's the next game. I don't care where we are.

"The only thing that matters is at the end of the season."

Those five words – Detroit Lions  ... First Place ... Alone – have a nice ring to them. They haven't been strung together very often in recent years.

But that's exactly where the Lions have been since Thursday's 16-13 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in their showdown game for the division lead.

It's a fun time when a team is in a playoff race – and even more fun when it's leading the division.

With five games left in the regular season, this week's Monday Countdown looks at how the Lions have gotten to 7-4 to lead the North, and where those qualities put them in the race to the finish.

Obviously, the two Matts – Matthew Stafford's arm and Matt Prater's leg – have had a lot to do with where they are and where they might go. But there's more to the Lions that that. Other positions, role players and rookies have played a role.

There's also an updated version of the weekly Playoff Watch – but focused solely on the North this week, along with my projection on a win total that will win the North – and a prediction on if the Lions will make it.

We start with the Stafford, and his blazing stats in the clutch:

1. Stafford in the clutch: Win or lose, it almost always falls on the quarterback to deliver in the clutch, and Stafford has delivered.

He has had the ball in his hands in fourth-quarter win-or-lose situations eight times, and he has delivered a victory seven times. The one exception: An interception-ending possession in the Game 2 loss to the Titans.

Time – or lack of it – doesn't seem to make any difference to Stafford. He gets the job done.

The litany of comebacks began on opening day with a 33-second drive to set up Prater's game-winning field goal against the Colts. In the first game against Minnesota, it took 23 seconds to get in position for a tying field goal as time ran out. Then a grind-it-out drive to the winning TD in overtime took more than six minutes.

Stafford's double drives: The first Minnesota game was one of three where Stafford needed two fourth-quarter drives to win. The Rams and Jaguars games were the others.

Stafford asterisk – Vikings: After Prater kicked the tying field goal on Thanksgiving Day, a second possession set up Prater's game-winning field goal. But does it really count as a "drive"? The offense got the ball on Darius Slay's interception. The only play was a two-yard loss on Stafford's kneel-down to let the clock run down so Prater's attempt would be made with no time left on the clock.

Does one kneel-down for lost yardage count as a drive?

Stafford stats: There's no asterisk here. On 11 fourth-quarter possessions that produced seven victories and a loss, Stafford completed 40 of 49 passes (81.63 percent) for 513 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 122.19. That's great, clutch football.

2. Prater's clutch kicks: At face value, Prater's performance has been incredible. He has kicked four field goals to win the game, two to tie and one to clinch. But looking deeper makes it even more incredible.

Two game-winning kicks were made when the Lions were trailing, and two others when the game was tied. In other words, the game was on his foot four times – make it to win or tie, or miss and lose.

That's a lot of pressure on a kicker – and also on the snapper, holder and protection unit.

3. Defense's clutch turnovers: Slay's last-minute interception on Thanksgiving Day was the fourth turnover that either set up the winning score or clinched a victory.

The others: Tyrunn Walker's fumble recovery set up Prater's winning field goal against the Eagles, and Slay's interception clinched it; Rafael Bush's interception clinched a win over the Rams the next week.

With the offense struggling against Jacksonville, Bush returned an interception for a touchdown early in the second half that gave the Lions a 16-9 lead. It wasn't a last-minute play, but without that TD, there wouldn't have been any last-minute heroics.

4. Pass catchers: All of the top three receivers have had lulls, but they've all made major contributions, too. So have tight end Eric Ebron and Theo Riddick. It's likely that all five will have at least 50 catches.

Ebron stat: He's the only tight end in franchise history to have a reception of at least 50 yards and a rushing TD in the same game. Ebron had a 61-yard catch and one-yard TD run against the Jaguars.

5. Rookie report: The 2016 draft class has gotten production and experience – a winning combination for the future on a team that is in first place while tweaking the roster under first-year GM Bob Quinn.

The top three draft picks started on Thanksgiving Day – tackle Taylor Decker and guard Graham Glasgow on the left side of the offensive line, and A'Shawn Robinson, a growing force on the interior of the defensive line.

Safety Miles Killebrew, linebacker Antwione Williams, defensive tackle Anthony Zettel and running back Dwayne Washington all have gotten substantial playing time.

Killebrew stats: He had four solo tackles and an assist in 12 defensive snaps against the Jaguars and four solos in nine snaps on Thanksgiving Day. One stop was on a third-down completion that forced the Vikings to settle for a field goal.

Killebrew quote: An analysis on, from his Combine workout: "World-class form tackler with bad intentions behind the strikes."

A hitter named Killebrew can do damage when he makes contact.

6. Depth, role players: That's usually reflected in special teams play, and it's been stellar on all levels –  Prater's clutch field goals, Sam Martin's punting, two punt returns for TDs by Andre Roberts and strong coverage units.

But it hasn't only been special teams that have made a mark. Roberts has made important catches in limited playing. Kerry Hyder hasn't had a sack in six of the last seven games, but his seven sacks cannot be discounted.

Linebacker Josh Bynes, who was re-signed in midseason, had a big tackle on a third-down catch in the last game to force a punt.

7. Preparation: Coaching gets underrated, and overlooked in some aspects, because of questions about strategy – go or punt on fourth down, when to throw the challenge flag, and other decisions. And that's fair game. It's part of what makes pro football such compelling drama.

But the way the offense has functioned late in games with few breakdowns speaks to how the team has been prepared to perform in the clutch. It's never going to be perfect, but there has been an absence of drive-killing penalties, mental mistakes and big drops.

On Thanksgiving Day, the Vikings had a third-down completion for a critical first down wiped out by a penalty for illegal formation.

On the next play, Darius Slay's interception on a bad read and throw by Sam Bradford put the Lions in position to win.

8. NFC North Playoff Watch

Detroit Lions (7-4)

Where they stand: Alone in first place, healthy and in charge with a one-game lead and the tiebreaker over the Vikings.

Next game: At New Orleans.

Rest of schedule: Home vs. Bears; at Giants, at Cowboys; home vs. Packers.

Stock watch/trend: Strong buy. All three road games are tough, but two home games vs. North teams are winnable.

Minnesota Vikings (6-5)

Where they stand: Trailing the Lions, they need help. Hard to believe this team was once 5-0.

Next game: Home vs. Cowboys.

Rest of schedule: At Jaguars; home vs. Colts; at Packers; home vs. Bears.

Stock watch/trend: Hold. With the Lions in the lead, any move now is outsider trading – legal but risky.

Green Bay Packers (4-6)

Where they stand: They have six straight must-win games. That means they need to win out.

Next game: At Eagles Monday night.

Rest of schedule: Home vs. Texans; home vs. Seahawks; at Bears; home vs. Vikings; at Lions.

Stock watch/trend: They might be another loss away from their only chance of making the Wall Street Journal being on the obit page.

9. Lions formula: The goal is to win the division and start the playoffs at home. If the Vikings lose to the Cowboys Thursday, the Lions will clinch the division by winning three of the last five, as long as one of the wins is over Green Bay in the regular-season finale.

My gut feeling: This is a year when 9-7 wins the North. But aim higher.

10. North prediction: The Lions are 6-1 since starting the season 1-3. They have the hottest team, and best team, in the NFC North.

They look like division winners.

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