By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — Matthew Stafford arrived in Detroit as a hotshot 21-year-old quarterback. He left three years ago as a grown man with a wife and four daughters all born in Michigan.
During the 12 years in between, he desperately tried to end the Lions’ decades-long playoff victory drought. The Lions failed, but he formed a bond with Detroit that remains a foundational part of his character.
Although Stafford grew up in Texas and has now made a comfortable home in Southern California, he came of age in the Motor City.
“It’s an amazing city,” Stafford said on a 60-degree Wednesday in January. “It’s an amazing group of fans. The organization does a heck of a job, and I know they’re going to be excited. It’s going to be a heck of an atmosphere. Probably one of the best we’ve played in in a long time. It’s a group of people that from my experience love the Lions, want what’s best for them. And now they’re playing good football.”
On Sunday night, Stafford will finally get to play in his first postseason game in Detroit. He’ll do it in the horned helmet of the Los Angeles Rams, the team he led to a Super Bowl championship in his first season after leaving the Lions.
Stafford is now in position to play a major role in extending the Lions’ postseason misery when Detroit hosts a playoff game for the first time in 30 years. While Stafford still holds Detroit dear, he’ll understand if the city doesn’t feel the same way this weekend.
“I’m not a stranger to the situation, and understanding that I’m the bad guy coming to town,” Stafford said. “I’m on the other team, and they don’t want success from me. So whatever happens, happens. I’m going to go experience it.”
Stafford played in three road playoff losses during his time with the Lions, and he hasn’t forgotten his frustration at being unable to end the Lions’ decades of disappointment.
“I had a lot of experiences there over 12 years,” Stafford said. “All my daughters were born there. My wife and I went through things there that the team and the city, the town, everybody supported. So I have nothing but great memories there. Obviously didn’t get it done on the field as much as I wish we could have, but the people that I was lucky enough to know and grow with are people that I’m still close with today and mean a lot to me.”
Stafford asked for a trade in early 2021 after the Lions embarked on yet another rebuild following three straight losing seasons.
Rams coach Sean McVay was dissatisfied with Jared Goff, his quarterback for the previous four seasons, and the teams reached a blockbuster deal.
Incredibly, this is the first playoff matchup in NFL history between two starting quarterbacks facing their former teams. Stafford already faced the Lions in 2021, leading the Rams to a narrow victory over Goff’s then-winless Lions at SoFi Stadium.
Stafford is still the leading passer in Lions franchise history with 45,109 yards and 282 TDs, but he is about to play at Ford Field for the first time since he left.
“I hope I don’t end up in the wrong (locker room),” Stafford said. “I do know it’s the same tunnel. … There’s a lot leading up to it, I understand all that, but once the ball’s snapped, man, let’s go play football.”
Nearly all of the remaining Lions did not play with Stafford in Detroit and are downplaying the reunion of sorts, but defensive end Romeo Okwara is well aware everyone else is talking about it.
“I know everyone is running away with that storyline this week,” said Okwara, a teammate of Stafford’s during his last three years in Detroit. “Love Stafford. He’s a great teammate, great friend. But this week, it’s just about us and trying to win the game.”
Most Lions fans were sorry to see Stafford leave after he requested a trade. Many kept rooting for him, and even wore Detroit Rams shirts that were made and seen around the Motor City.
Stafford’s second season in Los Angeles wasn’t nearly as cinematic as his first: He played in just nine games before being shut down with a bruised spinal cord while the Rams’ title defense fell apart. Stafford was forced to deny rumors he was considering retirement.
He has put together one of his most impressive seasons in his return, leading a Rams roster decidedly lacking in 2021 star power back to the postseason in defiance of practically every preseason projection.
He passed for 3,965 yards and 24 touchdowns despite missing 2 1/2 games for an injury and rest, and he was picked for the Pro Bowl for just the second time in his career.
Everything pales in comparison to Sunday night, when Stafford will step into Detroit’s bright lights for the playoff game he always wanted.
“It’ll be a tough place to play,” Stafford said. “It’ll be loud. It’ll be really tough for us to communicate as an offense, and we understand that. But those are the kind of fun experiences you want as a player in the NFL.”
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL