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O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: Stafford, Lions back in conversation

Matthew Stafford is in the MVP race, and that's a good thing for the Detroit Lions that their quarterback is in the conversation for MVP, even if the doubters are as passionate as Stafford's growing legion of supporters.

The Lions are in the race, too. And that's a better thing. What they did Sunday to beat the Minnesota Vikings in overtime validates them as legitimate contenders in the NFC North. It's mostly math—wins minus losses – but this team has shown more than mere numbers.

With the Lions on a bye this week after Sunday's 22-16 overtime road win over the Vikings, this week's Monday Countdown looks at what makes Stafford a candidate for MVP. Some of it's talk, but more of it's action – by Stafford.

There's also a look at what has been redemption for one player on offense, and emergence for two others – one of offense, one on defense. On special teams, it's a one-two kick from two of the strongest legs in the league.

There's also a look back at a gaffe by the Vikings, and how the Lions took advantage, two plays on both sides of the ball that showed some grit and the Final Word, on the playoff race.

We start with Stafford, with the buzz, a key game in the MVP race, timing and why he will not get a hometown vote – unless it's from Dallas, where he grew up:

1. The buzz: There has been talk in the national media about Stafford's place in the MVP race. The mere fact that his name has been mentioned means he is a candidate to some degree. The question is when?

On NBC's pregame show Sunday night, Rodney Harrison made this comment about Stafford: "Matthew Stafford is the best quarterback in that division (the NFC North)," Harrison said.

In some ways his situation on a Lions team that has a 5-4 win-loss record is ike being a true college freshman who gets mentioned as a candidate for the Heisman Trophy. Then the reality of the Heisman voting sets in halfway through the season, and he's out of that year's race – but in it the next year because his name is out there.

Stafford projected himself in the race with his performance in the last half of last season, and the comebacks he has engineered this year. Some analysts have suggested that the Lions might have been winless going into the Minnesota game had it not been for Stafford's comeback heroics.

What he is doing now – another comeback Sunday at Minnesota – and his superior quality of play over an extended period puts Stafford in the MVP race. Whether it's this year, next year or subsequent years, Matthew Stafford's name is out there. He's a candidate to be reckoned with.

2. Key game: Thanksgiving Day, obviously. Reputations are made and enhanced on Thanksgiving Day. The Lions have a rematch against the Vikings, and the highlights in the pregame shows are certain to feature a package of Stafford's comebacks

Imagine if Stafford comes close to doing to the Vikings what he did to the Eagles on Thanksgiving Day last year – 337 yards passing, five TDs and a 137.8 passer rating in a 45-14 Lions victory.

3. Timing: It's a good year for fresh faces – just like it was last year, when Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was the MVP after either Tom Brady (twice), Peyton Manning (three times) or Aaron Rodgers (twice) had won the award seven of the previous eight years. The only intruder in that span was Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in 2012.

Cowboys rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Raiders quarterback Derek Carr all are making impact on teams that are having turnaround seasons.

That doesn't mean Brady won't get some votes, even though the Patriots were 3-1 without him while he was under a four-game suspension by the NFL.

4. Hometown vote: The Detroit media does not have one of the 50 votes that pick the NFL's official All-Pro and MVP for the Associated Press.

(Full disclosure: I had the Detroit vote until leaving The Detroit News in 2008, and it was picked up by another news organization. There are competing versions for why it was given up, and the AP has shown no inclination to restore the vote to Detroit, which has an active, committed corps of beat reporters in the 13th largest TV market in the country.)

5. Grit – one play on offense: An eight-yard run off the left side by rookie running back Dwayne Washington doesn't show up as much in the box score, but it showed something about the team. It was the first play in an 84-yard, 17-play drive that ended in Stafford's one-yard pass to Anquan Boldin for the Lions first TD.

There really wasn't any running room, but against one of the NFL's stoutest defenses, Washington and the offensive linemen in front of him kept digging and churning until they moved the pile far enough to get an eight-yard gain out of nothing. It also had the Vikings' fans booing.

6. Grit – one play on defense:On fourth and less than a yard at the Lions' five-yard line in the fourth quarter, the defensive line stoned Matt Asiata for no gain. The Lions gave ground at times in the fourth quarter, and later gave up the go-ahead TD with 23 seconds left, but not on that play.

7. Vikings' gaffe: After the Vikings took a 16-13 lead with 23 seconds left, a penalty for roughing the kicker on the extra point let the Vikings kick off from the 50. They chose to kick it deep for a touchback – with no return, no time on the clock.

It was the wrong decision. A kickoff return would have taken four to six seconds off the clock, leaving the Lions 17-19 seconds to mount a drive instead of 23.

8. Taking advantage: Here's how Stafford and the offense went to work:

First play: Pass to Golden Tate on the left sideline for eight yards, out of bounds with 17 seconds left.

Second play: Deep down the middle to Andre Roberts for 27 yards to the Vikings' 40.

Third play: The offense hustles in play, and Stafford spikes the ball, two seconds left.

Fourth play: No rush, no hurry for the field goal team. Matt Prater makes a 58-yard field goal with no time on the clock to make it 16-16.

The Lions win in overtime.

9. Redemption – Golden Tate: He was a valuable, productive player his first two seasons with the Lions with receiving totals of 99 and 90 catches. However, he had a slow start this year that bottomed out in the Chicago game, when a blown route led to an interception.

Tate started his turnaround the next week with a big catch in the win over the Eagles. Tate has picked up steam since. He had 11 catches on 12 targets, including the game-winning catch in overtime. He had 32 catches in the last four games.

10. Emergence: On defense it's Kerry Hyder, whose two sacks Sunday gave him a team-high seven for the first nine games. He doesn't look like a flash in the pan who's about to fade out.

On offense it's tight end Eric Ebron. After missing three games with knee and ankle injuries, he had seven catches a week ago against Houston and seven more against the Vikings.

Nothing surprises Ebron with the way Stafford is able to rally the team.

"He has the arm," Ebron said. "We have the receivers."

11. Leg men: Special teams made the difference Sunday, with a blocked field-goal attempt by the Lions, a missed extra point by the Vikings' Blair Walsh, and the continued steady work by kicker Matt Prater and punter Sam Martin.

Martin averaged 52.4 yards, with a net of 46.2 on his five punts. Prater made all three field-goal attempts, from 47, 52 and 58 yards. His average made field goal was 52.6 yards.

Prater was matter-of-fact about making field goals.

"I don't get paid to attempt field goals," he said. "I get paid to make field goals."

12. Final Word – playoff race: I thought Sunday's game would be a turning point – up or down, based on the outcome – for the Lions. By winning, they're in control of their destiny. With a week off, they come back to play the Jaguars and Vikings in the next two games, both at Ford Field.

If they win both, they're guaranteed to be in at least a tie for first place in the NFC North with the Vikings and Packers.

And then the race is really on.

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