x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Stafford does it for Detroit's fans

Lions quarterback dedicates first play-off spot in 12 years to legion of franchise's followers.

Matthew Stafford, the quarterback, celebrates with fans following the Detroit Lions’ victory over the San Diego Chargers. Stafford, who was the No 1 overall draft pick in 2009, has had an impact on the team.
Matthew Stafford, the quarterback, celebrates with fans following the Detroit Lions’ victory over the San Diego Chargers. Stafford, who was the No 1 overall draft pick in 2009, has had an impact on the team.

Matthew Stafford led a victory lap parade around the perimeter of Detroit's Ford Field, high-fiving fans that have been waiting since 1999 for the Lions to make the NFL play-offs.

With the crowd chanting "Play-offs! Play-offs!" as the final few minutes ticked away, Detroit clinched a post-season spot thanks to Stafford's three touchdown passes in a 38-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Saturday.

Stafford appeared to be touched by the face-to-face interaction with fans hanging over the railing to reach his raised right hand.

"You could just get a sense of how much it meant to them," Stafford said. "It was fun to give them that kind of joy."

The Lions (10-5) have won three straight games to earn an NFC wild card berth, just three season's after they were the only 0-16 team in NFL history.

It was coach Jim Schwartz's idea for the team to celebrate with the followers.

"There's going to be a time that we don't celebrate getting to the play-offs, but it's not going to be tonight," Schwartz said. "It's been a long time coming."

No one has been waiting longer than owner William Clay Ford.

Ford, whose first season leading the franchise was in 1964, was handed a keepsake in the jubilant locker room.

"We gave him the game ball," said centre Dominic Raiola, who endured a string of miserable seasons after Detroit drafted him in 2001.

After Raiola's post-game news conference, he gave Stafford a bear hug.

"I'm excited for them, more than for myself and some of the other young guys," Stafford, 23, said.

Music blared in Detroit's locker room, where players hugged teammates and anyone else who crossed their paths. Smiles might have outnumbered beads of sweat after a lopsided win that ended San Diego's play-off hopes.

The Chargers, meanwhile, were eliminated from play-off contention. San Diego will miss the post-season for a second straight year after making it five times in a six-season stretch.

And that might cost coach Norv Turner his job.

"I've been concentrating every week as well as I can on getting this team ready to play and doing the things we need to do," Turner said. "We all know that's something that's discussed at the end of the year."

San Diego stayed in play-off contention deep into December by winning three straight games, but could not overcome their mid-season losing streak.

"When you lose six in a row in this league, you're probably not going to the post-season, but we fought our way back in it," Philip Rivers, the Chargers quarterback, said. "You're hanging your hat on running the table, and going to beat play-off teams on the road, it's tough."

Knowing they could move into the post-season by winning, the Lions held San Diego scoreless until midway through the third quarter, when Rivers threw an 11-yard pass to Malcom Floyd to make it 24-7.

Detroit then closed strong to restore the rout.

The Lions and Buffalo Bills started the season with the league's longest play-off droughts at 11 seasons. Detroit's wait is over because a decades-long search for a strong quarterback ended with the No 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft. Coming off the league's only 0-16 season, Detroit selected Stafford.

"That's probably the key to a franchise is having a good quarterback and we'll hold onto him for a while," Schwartz said.

Stafford was almost perfect in the first half against San Diego, completing 21 of 26 passes for 260 yards with three touchdowns. He capped the first drive with a seven-yard pass to Brandon Pettigrew, threw a three-yarder to Kevin Smith in the second quarter and connected with Calvin Johnson from 14 yards just before halftime to give the Lions a 24-0 lead.

"His numbers at half-time were outrageous," Raiola said. "He's the real deal."

Stafford finished with 373 yards passing to give him 4,518 this year, breaking Scott Mitchell's single-season team record from 1995. Perhaps not coincidently, that season marked the last time the Lions had double digits in wins.

The Lions will go for their 11th victory and try to improve their playoff position on January 1 against Green Bay, a team they have not beaten on the road since 1991.