When MVP candidate Derek Carr broke his leg in the fourth quarter of the Raiders’ Week 16 matchup against the Colts, most of us instantly knew that Oakland’s Super Bowl hopes had effectively shattered as well. When Matthew Stafford dislocated a joint and tore ligaments in the middle finger of his throwing hand in Week 14 against the Bears, however, few of us realized how damning the injury actually was. Stafford didn’t even come out of the game: He taped on a splint, put on a glove, and played the final three quarters while leading Detroit to a 20–17 win. Now, following the Lions’ 26–6 wild-card loss to the Seahawks, it’s clear that Stafford’s injury also marked the end of any hopes the Lions had of making a real playoff run.
While Detroit’s postseason prospects never looked as bright as Oakland’s, Stafford’s exceptional play early in the season gave the Lions an outside shot. Against Seattle on Saturday, however, he struggled badly for the fourth straight game, completing just 18 of 32 passes for 205 yards and no touchdowns in the loss. The Detroit defense, which finished dead last in DVOA this season, couldn’t contain quarterback Russell Wilson, running back Thomas Rawls, or the rest of the Seahawks offense; and Stafford got little support from the Lions’ 30th-ranked run game, which gained just 49 yards on 15 carries. It might feel like the fourth-quarter magic that got the Lions to nine wins this year simply ran out in the playoffs, but the truth is it ended back in Week 14 when Stafford had to put on that glove.
After Detroit managed to squeak out that win over Chicago, the Lions stood at 9–4 and in full control of the NFC North, two games ahead of the still-underperforming Packers. They’d gotten to that pole position thanks to outstanding efficiency and some late-game heroics from Stafford. The eighth-year signal-caller had assumed a new identity in coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s offense, transforming from a reckless, turnover-prone gunslinger into a surgeon slicing defenses with the football. Through 13 weeks, he’d completed 67 percent of his passes while throwing 21 touchdowns and just five picks and posting a 100.5 passer rating. From Week 14 on, though, he completed just 60 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and five picks and a 74.1 passer rating to conclude the regular season. Detroit lost its final three games — and the division title. Though Stafford kept playing after he got hurt, he suffered a significant loss of accuracy and touch on his downfield throws, and also lost his ability to carry the Lions to wins. The defense and run game were never going to be good enough to pick up the slack, and that proved true against Seattle.
Of course, few teams are able to survive a significant injury to the starting quarterback; if there’s a silver lining, it’s that there’s plenty to build on from an excellent start in 2016. The Lions will return many of the key pieces to their offense, and their run game should improve considerably next season with Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah back on the field. They’ll also have the opportunity to add pieces to improve the defense via the draft and free agency. But for a fan base that hasn’t seen its team win a playoff game since 1991, and a quarterback who looked like a fringe MVP contender earlier this season, that’s surely little consolation now.