The Detroit Lions were a juggernaut. They were 8-4, and had just come off an incredible performance against the New Orleans Saints. The Lions had won seven of the last eight, and had won seven wins games after comebacks in the fourth quarter. Matthew Stafford was getting MVP attention.
Detroit would pull off yet another fourth quarter comeback in Week 14 of the 2016 NFL season. A late Stafford interception put the team in a hole late against their division rival Chicago Bears, but the quarterback redeemed himself by taking the ball in himself from 7 yards out late in the fourth to give Detroit a lead they would never lose.
They would not escape with a victory unscathed, though. Stafford’s hand crashed into Bears edge rusher Leonard Floyd on a broken play late in the first quarter and suffered an injury to his throwing hand.
Stafford would finish that game—and the season—with a glove on his right throwing hand. The quarterback suffered a dislocation and torn ligament. While he did not miss a game the rest of the season, he was clearly not the same.
Detroit was not as aggressive in their final three games last season, hindered by their quarterback’s injury. He clearly looked off, and the next three games were clearly his worst in a season that had MVP potential.
The Lions walked out of Ford Field in Week 14 with a 9-4 record, and a two-game lead in the NFC North—a division they have never won. They finished the season with a dull 17-6 loss against the New York Giants, a second half collapse in a 42-21 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, and fell apart in the second half once again a week later in a 31-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers that decided the NFC North crown.
Detroit still earned a wild card playoff spot, but were dismantled by the Seattle Seahawks.
A season that looked like it would end with a division title, MVP trophy and a first-round bye— maybe even a playoff win, possibly even a Super Bowl—ended with four straight losses and a first-round exit.
So what if Stafford had stayed healthy? How different would the season would have ended if his hand didn’t crash into Floyd’s helmet? Where would the Lions be today if it hadn’t?
In the first 12 games of the 2016 season, Stafford completed 67 percent of his passes for 7.1 yards per attempt. He threw 21 touchdowns and five interceptions, posting a 100.5 passer rating. The Lions posted an 8-4 record.
In the final four games, Stafford completed just under 60 percent of his passes for 6.7 yards per attempt and a 74.3 passer rating. He threw three touchdowns and five interceptions. The most important stat of all, though, is the teams 0-4 record after his injury.
The end of the 2016 season was brutal for Detroit, though, and their tough schedule may have played as much of a role in the team’s collapse.
The Cowboys were Super Bowl favorites being led by the rookie duo of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. New York had the best defense in the NFL and had the Super Bowl on their mind as well. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are always a tough out late in the year. The Seahawks were NFC West champions with an elite defense.
Detroit only met two playoff teams in their first 12 games of the season—a Week 3 game against the Packers and a Week 8 game against the Houston Texans — and they lost both convincingly. In total, they went 0-6 against playoff teams, and looked pretty horrible in all of them.
One could argue that the Lions should have been just as good as the other four teams they played if Stafford was healthy, though. Detroit had one of the best special teams units in the league, Darius Slay was a borderline elite corner, and their receiving corps of Golden Tate, Marvin Jones Jr., Anquan Boldin, Eric Ebron, and Theo Riddick was one of the best in the league. Bad teams don’t post 8-4 records in the NFL, even if they had a favorable schedule.
To win the NFC North, Detroit would have either had to beat both the Giants and Cowboys, or just beat the Packers in Week 17.
As good as the Giants were on defense, their offense was a train wreck that day, and had Stafford been at his best that day, the Lions would be easy favorites to steal a road victory.
Winning the other two games would be a tall task, though. Beating a Super Bowl contending Dallas team on the road would be tough no matter what, and the team’s run-based offense was the perfect way to beat a Lions team with an awful front seven.
It would all come down to Week 17 against Green Bay at Ford Field, and it is hard to say how different that game would have looked with a healthy Stafford.
On one hand, Aaron Rodgers was as hot as ever, and it is hard to bet against him in what was essentially a playoff game. On the other hand, some of Stafford’s best performances have come against the Packers, and a Ford Field crowd would give him an extra boost.
In this scenario, if Detroit loses they would finish the season 10-6. They would be the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs and meet the Packers again in the wild card round at Lambeau. They would most likely lose this game, and their season would end the same way.
Things get interesting if they win this game, though. An 11-5 Detroit would earn the three seed in the NFC—missing out on a first round bye due to a worse conference record than the Atlanta Falcons. Detroit would have won their first division title in nearly 30 years, their first in the NFC North. Ford Field would also be set to host its first ever playoff game.
Stafford most likely does not win MVP, though, but he may finish second in voting to Matt Ryan of the Falcons.
A third-seeded Lions team faces the Packers in this scenario as well, just at Ford Field. Again a theoretical game between these two teams with both quarterbacks at full strength feels like a toss up. If Detroit loses, their season ends. If they win, their season likely ends the next week against the Cowboys in Arlington.
The worst case realistic scenario for Detroit if Stafford stayed healthy is their season ending in the wild card round, which happened anyways.
In the best case realistic scenario, their season ends in the divisional round, but the season goes down as one of their best in the Super Bowl era with a playoff win and a division title.
The best case scenario would also have long term effects down the line. Even is the 2017 season plays out the same way—a 7-9 record and failure to make the playoffs — it is hard to make any real argument for the firing of head coach Jim Caldwell.
Caldwell would still have one of the highest winning records for a Lions head coach ever. He would also be one of two Lions head coaches since the merger to win a division and a playoff game.
This leads to a multitude of changes, including different draft classes and free agency signings. Both offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin may still be around. The team may not make the switch to a 3-4 defense. The entirety of the 2018 season plays out differently.
Before I started writing this, I remembered the 2016 season as “the year” for the Lions. A year they should have won the Super Bowl, and the year that Stafford would finally have won an MVP trophy and earned the national recognition he has deserved for far too long.
Things probably would not have been as rosy as I thought. While a lot of narratives about Stafford would have vanished, he wouldn’t have won any hardware.
Detroit’s season probably would have been a success, though. Many Lions fans—including myself—have never seen a playoff victory nor a division title. A few miserable playoff drought streaks that have existed over the past 30 years would have died, as well.
Would the season have most likely won the Super Bowl? No. Would it have probably been a special year for the younger generation of Lions fans? Yes.