Matthew Stafford stood at the podium a continent from home last month, almost giddy.
The sixth-year Detroit Lions quarterback had completed the unthinkable a few moments earlier, leading the Lions to their second straight double-digit come-from-behind win against an NFC South team, this time a 22-21 win against the Falcons in London.
There Stafford stood, possibly happier than anyone in the United Kingdom at that moment. In the NFL, these types of comebacks don't happen. This isn't college and Stafford is no longer at Georgia. Yet there he was, running the offense for the inexplicable, improbable, unbelievable Detroit Lions. They are 6-2 and controlling their own playoff future for the second straight season after a first half of a season that has included big comebacks and some of the worst kicking performances in recent NFL history.
MVP: The defensive line. This was a tough call because of the sustained strong play of receiver Golden Tate, who has often been the sole reason the Lions were able to have offensive success. But the Detroit defense has been in the top 10 in almost every category for the majority of the season, and all of that begins with the 10 men on the defensive line. Ndamukong Suh is the No. 5 defensive tackle in the game, according to Pro Football Focus, and Nick Fairley, before his knee injury, was ranked 12th by PFF. Why this unit earns the MVP award, though, is because of its role players. George Johnson was an off-the-street find who has given the Lions another pass-rusher besides Ezekiel Ansah at end. Jason Jones is playing back to form and Darryl Tapp is showing versatility against the run and pass. The Lions don't have anywhere close to the top-rated defense in the league if not for the front four.
Biggest disappointment: Nate Freese and Alex Henery. The Lions' first and second kickers this season were abysmal. Freese turned into a wasted draft pick who probably should not have been kept in training camp over Giorgio Tavecchio. Freese was cut after an inconsistent preseason and three weeks of missed kicks. The Lions replaced him with Henery, who on paper looked to be a decent option. However, he missed three field-goal attempts against Buffalo, including a potential game-winner, and he was gone the next day, replaced by Matt Prater. That the Lions couldn't figure out their kicking situation until Week 6 reflects on the coaches and front office.
Best moment: The last four minutes against New Orleans. The first of two improbable comebacks in the first half of the season, the way Detroit came back from 13 points down against New Orleans in the final four minutes -- a long Tate run-after-catch for a touchdown, an interception by Glover Quin and then a Stafford touchdown pass to Corey Fuller -- encapsulated what the Lions are trying to be this season. It showed Detroit's explosiveness on offense and defense, and after the season it could be one of those wins that is viewed as a turning point.
Worst moment: Calvin Johnson's ankle injuries. The first, against Green Bay, didn't look too bad. Johnson hobbled off the field a little bit but returned later in the game. What followed, though, ended the effectiveness of the top receiver in the NFL for the first half of the season. Johnson was hobbled against the Jets and played against Buffalo, when he aggravated the ankle on his only catch of the day. He hasn't played since, and it has not been good for the Detroit offense or for Johnson, who has dealt with finger, knee and ankle injuries the past two seasons.
Key to the second half: Improved offensive line play. Stafford was sacked 24 times in the first half of the season -- one more time than all of last season. Though the protection has improved the past three weeks, including no sacks allowed against Atlanta, the Lions need to protect him better for there to be sustained success. They also need to figure out a way to block for the run more effectively. The Lions have one of the two worst rushing offenses in the league a season after running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell were considered one of the best tandems in the NFL. Games at New England, Chicago and Green Bay are going to be much tougher for Detroit to win in winter if it can't find its run game.