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O'Hara's Monday Countdown: Stafford proving he's the franchise

Posted Oct 29, 2012

Some guys who ought to know feel good about the Lions' chances to go to Jacksonville Sunday and win to get their record to .500.

It's nice to have someone on your side, including the sharpies in Las Vegas. The lines that were posted in Vegas late Sunday night favored the Lions by a solid four points.

A couple had them at 3.5 points, and a few favored the Lions by a point more at 4.5.

I'm listing the spread for information purposes only – in reference to how they are projected to stack up against a Jacksonville team that ranks among the weakest in the NFL. And this information comes with a word of caution.

It guarantees nothing.

In Week 3, the Lions went to Tennessee as four-point favorites, after an opening-game win over the Rams followed by a loss at San Francisco the next Sunday night.

You remember what happened in Nashville. The Lions gave up touchdowns on punt, kickoff and fumble returns and ultimately lost in overtime, 44-41.

The game ended on a bizarre play. Center Dominic Raiola didn't get the right call on a fourth-down play and snapped the ball instead of having a timeout called to kick a chip-shot field goal to tie the game.

The point of this week's Monday Countdown isn't to belabor the point about a game the Lions gave away. The point is that nothing, good or bad, can be taken for granted, and there are plenty of examples of both.

The focus of this week's Monday Countdown is on the opportunity, and the hazards, that lie ahead of the Lions. There's also a look at a side of Matthew Stafford that should surprise the doubters, how Nate Burleson's injury might pay an unintended dividend and how the running backs will continue to be used.

There's also a look at how the Manning brothers – Peyton the elder, Eli the younger – have gotten the Broncos and Giants respectively to the top of their divisions, and the winners and loser in Peyton's career shift. There is also the best and worst of the NFL after eight weeks.

We start with Stafford, and a side of him that's been revealed this season:

1. The franchise: There is no other way to say it than the franchise rests on Stafford's arm, legs, brains, guile and leadership.

The stats on his game-winning drives are ridiculously out of proportion for how many games he has played. Sunday's game was his 36th start, and he has led the Lions to the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter or overtime nine times.

That means he's won 25 percent of his starts with a fourth-quarter drive.

And there are other instances when Stafford gave the Lions a fourth-quarter lead that they couldn't hold. The season-ending game at Green Bay last season was one of those games. So was the overtime loss at Tennessee.

"He puts the team on his back when we need it most," defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said after the game.

"He does it over and over and over."

2. Tough duty: All things considered, Sunday's game might have been the most physically demanding of Stafford's career. The Seahawks have a tough front four, and they had Stafford on the run or squirming away from pressure often.

He was sacked twice, hit seven times and ran four times. On the two plays before he hit Titus Young with a one-yard pass to win the game, Stafford had to avoid the rush to get rid of the ball. Both times he rolled right and threw.

He came up limping slightly after the second rollout, and it didn't seem to bother Stafford.

He threw a bullet to Young. Some people on the sideline said the ball was thrown so hard that they could hear the thunk when it hit Young's hands.

After the injuries that shortened his first two seasons, it is evident now that Stafford is tough, physically and mentally. He comes back from tough hits, bad plays and bad losses.

3. Favorites: The Lions have been favored four times, and their record is 2-2 in those games. They've beaten the Rams and Seahawks and lost to the Titans and Vikings.

The Jaguars are 1-6 with a four-game losing streak, and 0-3 record at home, and they've scored a league-low 103 points.They're set up to get rolled by the Lions. It should be like knocking down bowling pins with a push broom.

But the Titans were 0-2 when they beat the Lions and had been outscored, 72-25.

The Vikings didn't score an offensive touchdown when they beat the Lions, 20-13, in Game 4 at Ford Field.

Do I think the Lions will beat the Jaguars and get to the halfway mark with a 4-4 record? Yes.

Would I bet on it? Not a chance.

4. Burleson fallout: Titus Young and rookie Ryan Broyles are the beneficiaries of more playing time because of the broken leg that ended Nate Burleson's season.

Both responded Sunday with big games. Young was targeted by Stafford nine times and caught all nine passes. Two went for TDs. Broyles was targeted five times and caught three passes. He scored his second pro TD. The first one came last week against the Bears, when he moved up the pecking order after Burleson went out.

Young spoke about how expectations have grown on him to pick up the slack caused by Burleson's absence.

"I saw a lot of guys just looking at me throughout the week," Young said. "I took it on myself to be there for my teammates."

No player matures in a week. It happens that way only in the movies. But players can take big steps when they have big shoes to fill, and that's the case for Young and Broyles.

5. The second half: Now that I've decided that the Lions will be 4-4 after beating Jacksonville, the second-half schedule is like walking on hot coals wearing shower shoes, and carrying a can of gas to refuel the lawn mower.

After Jacksonville, the Lions are at Minnesota (5-3), home to the Packers (5-3), Texans (6-1) and Colts (4-3), at Green Bay (5-3) and Arizona (4-3) and at home with Atlanta (7-0) and Chicago (6-1).

The Vikings and Cardinals are slipping back, and the Colts are riding rookie Andrew Luck's arm, but any of the other teams on the schedule could make the Super Bowl and nobody would be surprised.

It's a tough finish, made tougher by squandering games against the Titans and Vikings.

6. Not the Best: The Lions' offense works best with a speed back, and Jahvid Best was ideal in that role. Without him, playing time is parceled out to Mikel Leshoure, Joique Bell and Kevin Smith. Smith gets the least time.

It also creates a huge opportunity for tight end Brandon Pettigrew on short and intermediate range patterns. He had seven catches against a tough Seahawks secondary.

7. Peyton Manning: He looked like the Peyton Manning of old in Indianapolis, and not an old Peyton Manning, in Sunday night's 34-14 wipeout win over the Saints. Manning completed 22-of-30 passes for 305 yards and had a passer rating of 138.9.

In NBC's postgame show, Tony Dungy, Manning's former coach at Indianapolis, said Manning will get even better as the season goes on. Those are chilling words for opponents of the Broncos, who are 5-3 and in first place in the AFC West.

8. Eli Manning: He didn't do anything special – for a change – in the Giants' 29-24 win at Dallas. He completed 15-of-29 passes for 192 yards, with a interception and no TDs.

On the other side, Cowboys QB Tony Romo passed for 437 yards and a TD but also had four interceptions. One was returned for a TD. The Cowboys' running game produced a mighty 19 yards on 17 carries.

Of course, most of the NFL talk this week will be about what's right and wrong in Dallas. Meanwhile, the Giants are on top of the NFC East at 6-2. The Cowboys are 3-4 and lead the league in drama.

9. Peyton fallout: The Broncos and Colts got what they wanted and needed when Manning was released by Indy after 14 seasons with the team. The Broncos could be headed for their first Super Bowl since the 1998 season. Indy drafted Andrew Luck first overall and has its franchise QB.

The loser was the Jets, who traded with Denver to get Tim Tebow and haven't found a way to use him.

The Jets are 3-5 after Sunday's drubbing at home by the Dolphins. Tebow has thrown three passes, completing two, and has been marginally effective as a runner – 22 carries for 76 yards.

The bottom line on Tebow: he has touched the ball 25 times in eight games, and the Jets are 3-5 with Mark Sanchez flailing and failing weekly. I doubt if Tebow is the answer to what is troubling the Jets, but it's time to play him. Sanchez is not the answer.

10. Off the grid: The end for the Tigers was sad and disappointing in every way - getting swept, with the final game at home, by a 4-3 score in 10 innings, and with Miguel Cabrera taking a called third strike to end the game. Good season. Great run to the World Series.

Sad ending.

11. The NFL's best:

1. Falcons (7-0): They whipped the Eagles, who were coming out of a bye.
2. Texans (6-1): The AFC's best – for now.
3. Bears (6-1): Not sure they'll hold up, but their record deserves this spot.
4. Giants (6-2): Held on to beat the Cowboys to win their fourth straight.
5. 49ers (5-2): Coming off a bye, they should take command of the NFC West.
6. Packers (5-3): Three-game winning streak, and Aaron Rodgers is humming.
7. Patriots (5-3): Made mince pies out of Rams in London.
8. Ravens (5-2): Injury to Ray Lewis and others weakens them.
9. Broncos (4-3): Better than their record.
10. Vikings (5-3): Not as good as their record, with Christian Ponder struggling.
11. Steelers (4-3): Always look ready to make a move.
12. Dolphins (4-3): Joe Philbin has them on three-game win streak.

12 The NFL's Worst

5. Titans (3-5): There are worse records, but they've been outscored by 95 points.
4. Browns (2-5): New owner has to be impressed with effort under Coach Pat Shurmur.
3. Panthers (1-6): They had Bears beaten but found a way to lose.
2. Jaguars (1-6): Everything is bad about his franchise.
1. Chiefs (1-6): Scott Pioli's reign as GM has imploded.

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