By the time Golden Tate caught a pass along the sideline, stone cold shook a pursuing defender and broke through a tackle by Harrison Smith to reach the end zone on the opening possession of overtime in the Lions 22-16 win over Minnesota on Sunday, Lions fans were already feeling pretty good about themselves.

Image titleFor a franchise that has been one of the worst in the NFL for years, losing Calvin Johnson to retirement was a big blow. Most heads thought his departure would weaken QB Matthew Stafford, who's been putting up major numbers with few major moments to legitimize them.

Having Megatron at your disposal isn’t a bad safety net when your accuracy is off and defenses are clawing at your jersey (or in Cam Newton’s case, taking more shots to the dome than three sailors on weekend leave.)   

Stafford has become the epitome of untapped potential since being selected first overall in the 2009 draft, despite putting up some eye-popping aerial stats through the first eight years of his career.

Since entering the league, Stafford has thrown for 28,349 yards in 104 career starts and he’s not even 30 years old. He’s thrown for more than 4,000 yards in each of the last five seasons, including throwing more than 5,000 yards in 2011.

Unfortunately, his brilliance has not resulted in any real team accolades.

The Lions have gone just 44-45 since 2011. They are 5-4 this season and fighting for first place in the NFC North division. Detroit is no stranger to going on streaks, but they are also familiar with poor decision-making at critical times and a penchant to almost always “find a way to lose.” 

He's even been benched, when it was really bad in the D.  

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Detroit showed flashes of getting over the hump, going 18-14 in the past two seasons under head coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. Stafford was airing it out, but his turnover numbers turned fans' stomachs as fast as his long-range connections with Megatron and Golden Tate electrified them.

The turning point is when Lombardi was ousted and Jim Bob Cooter was promoted from quarterbacks coach to replace him.

Through Week 7 of 2015, Stafford threw nine interceptions and the Lions had a 1-6 record. Lombardi was fired before Week 8. Under Cooter, who has instituted a short-striking passing game and limited risk throws, Stafford tossed just four interceptions in the team’s final nine games and the Lions ended up with a 7-9 record. Stafford finished the year strong, particularly in his final eight games and finished with a QB rating of 97.0.

“His last eight games last year...and first eight this season... as far as TDs and completion percentage and interceptions were spectacular,” said former Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick. “Stafford finally seemed to figure out how to avoid the devastating mistake or the key blunder. Look at end of last year and what he’s doing now this year, we may be seeing the Matthew Stafford of the future and this is who Matthew Stafford is.”

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Detroit fans sure hope so because the fate of the Lions are directly and solely tied to the success of their QB, who is approaching superstar status. In games Detroit has won this season, Stafford has 13 TDs and just 1 interception with a QB rating of 119.1.

In the four games they've lost, Stafford’s numbers sink to 5 TDs, 4 picks with a QB rating of  83.8. It's all about the golden-armed vet taking the next step. 

On Sunday, he seized a huge opportunity against a division-leader and led his squad to victory in overtime. These are the kinds of games big-time teams win. The kind of dramatic overtime wins that superstar QB's pull out for their teams.

Looks like the eight-year vet out of Georgia is turning the corner. If that’s the case there could be some long overdue playoff success waiting on the other side.