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This year, Lions fans should give thanks to the Denver Broncos

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AFC Championship - New England Patriots v Denver Broncos Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

4-for-12.

That was the Detroit Lions’ kicking efficiency through five weeks of the 2014 NFL season.

Nate Freese, drafted in the final round of that year’s NFL Draft, last an entire three games on the roster before his 0-for-4 efficiency from 40+ yards led to him getting waived.

Detroit had managed to survive those three games, heading 2-1 into Week 4. That’s when they scooped up free agent Alex Henery, who had made a respectable 86 percent of his kicks in three years with the Eagles. He wasn’t the most powerful of legs (career long of just 51 yards), but he was dependable, and that’s all the Lions needed at the time.

Henery would go 1-for-5 in two games. His three missed field goals against the Bills—including a potential game-tying 50-yarder with 21 seconds to go—undoubtedly cost Detroit their fourth win of the season.

The Lions were at a crossroads. The team was clearly good enough to compete for a playoff spot. But if they were to ever find themselves in tight situations, they clearly couldn’t trust their kickers.

That’s when the Denver Broncos came in and saved their season (and several subsequent seasons).

Two days before the Lions would lose that frustrating Jim Schwartz revenge game to the Bills, the Broncos made what they called a “football decision,” by released kicker Matt Prater. Prater had just served his four-game suspension stemming from a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy.

At the time it was a risk. Prater was the most accurate kicker in Broncos history, and their young kicker, Brandon McManus, had only kicked three field goals in the big leagues at the time (he made all three). Many believe the decision was more based on an inability to trust Prater, whose struggle with alcoholism resulted in a 2011 DUI and was the reason for his suspension.

In retrospect, it didn’t turn out to be that costly of a decision for Denver. McManus has been the Broncos kicker ever since and has successfully converted 81 percent of his kicks. [Editors’ note: As pointed out by astute reader “SoCalLionsFan”, McManus was actually cut in the middle of the 2014 season, but won the job again in 2015.]

But the move couldn’t have come at a better time for the Detroit Lions. Just two days after Henery went 0-for-3, the Lions swiped up Prater from the free agency pool. 12 days later, Prater would kick the game-winning extra point in a thrilling comeback against the New Orleans Saints. A week later, the Lions trusted Prater to kick a 43-yarder to win the game in London.

He missed it.

But down from the heavens dropped the best penalty flag in Lions history. Delay of game. The play clock had just barely expired before the snap and Prater was given another chance, this time from five yards further. He didn’t make the same mistake twice.

The rest has been history. I could go on and list the long list of accolades to Prater’s name since joining Detroit—his 2016 Pro Bowl nomination, his unblemished record on clutch kicks, the fact that he holds the four longest kicks in Detroit Lions history—but Lions fans are well aware of his accomplishments.

It’s why there’s a running theory that Matt Prater may not be human. It’s why, after his latest 52-yard game-winning kick in the swirling winds of Chicago, we’ve renamed our Twitter page “Prater of Detroit” and even changed our logo.

But fans aren’t the only ones that have noticed just how integral Prater has been to the team’s success. Here’s what Matthew Stafford had to say about Prater in the aftermath of his game-winning kick in Chicago:

“He’s been huge for us. I’ve said this for years. I mean, we get these comeback victories and all that kind of stuff, and you give those stats to the quarterback or the coach or whatever. But lots of times, he’s a big part of them. And he misses a couple of those field goals along the way, we’re not sitting here talking about them. So, he’s as clutch as they get. He loves that moment, and I feel like he relishes that clutch time, and he does a great job.”

Last Thanksgiving, Prater kicked the Lions to victory over the Minnesota Vikings on a last-second field goal. Who knows if Prater has another one up his sleeve this year, but even if he doesn’t, Lions fans should give thanks to the Broncos that Prater is part of the Lions’ arsenal.

That being said, also give thanks to the man himself. Not only has Matt Prater been an outstanding kicker for the Lions, but he has battled the hell out of his alcoholism. After his suspension in 2014, Prater voluntarily admitted himself into a rehabilitation clinic. “I wasn't forced to go. It was just something I thought I should do, and my family, they helped me out a lot,” Prater told ESPN after he signed with the Lions.

And since then, Prater has kept his pledge to sobriety. He recently told the Detroit Free Press that his weekly drug tests have come up clean 4.5 years and running (his suspension, he says, came after failing to show up for multiple drug tests).

Detroit has helped Prater battle his addiction, and Prater, in turn, has helped the city and their football team battle for supremacy. So on Thursday, let’s give thanks.