The Matthew Stafford experience reminds us how hard Detroit Lions fandom can be.

Detroit Free Press

He called it the “love of the game route.” And why not? Whatever else you think — or say — about Matthew Stafford, surely, you’d never question that.

He showed how much he loved football during his 12 years with the Detroit Lions. Every. Single. Snap.

The name of the route refers to a receiver going deep who knows he likely won’t get the ball. It’s a decoy, designed to clear out space.

When Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp took off on that route with 28 seconds left against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL divisional playoffs, the score was tied at 27 and the Rams had just given up 24 consecutive points.

[ Matthew Stafford doesn’t know why former Lions teammate Ndamukong Suh hates him ]

Stafford agreed to a trade to the Rams for this sort of moment: the ball in his hands, conference title at stake, Tom Brady awaiting on the other side.

He took the snap, dropped back, recognized Tampa blitzing, saw Kupp race past his defender, and let it fly. He hit Kupp in stride.

He then sprinted down the field, motioning for his teammates to follow, and set up to spike the ball to stop the clock to give their kicker the chance to win the game. They did. The kicker did. And in less than 50 seconds, Stafford changed his legacy.

DAVE BIRKETT: Soul-snatching Matthew Stafford one win from Super Bowl; is Hall of Fame next?

He’ll have a chance Sunday to change it more. And, if he can lead his Rams past the San Francisco 49ers, he’ll have a chance in two more weeks to change it once again.

Already, Stafford has done what he couldn’t in Detroit — win a playoff game. In fact, he’s won two.

Whether you blame him or the Lions is beside the point. Yeah, it makes for passionate debate, good social media fodder, and further turns the Lions’ fan base in on itself. But, really, what matters is that we’re having the debate at all.

It says something about what it means to love the Lions. It also says something about this region.

To feel so much about a player on another team, to live vicariously through their performance, to let the pride swell or the rage fester, is unique to this fan base and this team.

Perhaps it’s happened in professional basketball or baseball or hockey, but in the NFL, at least in its modern history, no group of fans have watched their team draft a quarterback with the first pick, watch that quarterback show flashes of greatness, watch that quarterback struggle, watch that quarterback for 12 years, having never won a playoff game, having reached the playoffs only three times, leave for another team only to watch that player — the very next season — lead his team to the brink of the Super Bowl.

Emotionally, it’s unprecedented.

[ Dan Orlovsky to Lions fans who doubted Matthew Stafford: ‘I told you so’ ]

Stafford was supposed to save the Lions. Instead, he might save a team in a city where fans can’t be bothered to fill the stadium for the NFC championship game.

Fine, the Rams didn’t need saving the way the Lions did — and do. They played in a Super Bowl three years ago. They won a playoff game last season. They just weren’t good enough to win it all.

Stafford may give them that chance. He certainly did Sunday against Tampa, when he led the Rams into field goal position with 40 seconds left.

That he made the deep throw to Kupp, which followed a 20-yard out to Kupp, it looked achingly familiar, no? Because he used to do this in Detroit.

He led the league some years in fourth-quarter comebacks. He also led the league some years in did-you-see-that throws.

He just never did this on the stage he did Sunday, giving ammunition to the portion of the fan base that always felt the Lions’ dysfunction held him down. Many of those folks celebrated Sunday.

Vindication tastes sweet like that. And while this town has watched other great players leave and find titles — Justin Verlander comes to mind – no player stayed here in the struggle so long.

Verlander played in two World Series for the Tigers. Sure, it was fun for Verlander fans to watch him win a championship in Houston. But that triumph didn’t fill an existential void like Stafford’s win did for some on Sunday.

Is that ridiculous to consider?

No, not for some Lions fans.

To be a Lions fan is to suffer. Not in the way Buffalo Bills fans suffer — their team lost a heartbreaker Sunday night in Kansas City. But in the way those who love unrequitedly suffer.

The Bills may have lost, but their quarterback, Josh Allen, and that team gave upstate New York a game for the ages, a thrilling back-and-forth contest that seemed to push the NFL game forward.

The Lions and Stafford gave their fans a reason to complain about the officials in a wild card game.

The new Lions regime may change all this in the next few years. Dan Campbell’s squad showed heart and character in a season in which it won only three times.

So maybe there is a little hope. In the meantime, though, there is Stafford and his run to the brink of a Super Bowl.

You can loathe him. You can love him. You just can’t stop thinking about him. And that’s just fine. You’re a Lions fan, part of the most unique fan base in the NFL.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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