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ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Matthew Stafford's latest highlight had more to do with his wits than his arm.
With Detroit trailing by six and seconds ticking away, Stafford could have simply spiked the ball to stop the clock. Instead he surprised the Dallas defense and even some of his own teammates by lunging forward and reaching the ball toward the goal line — and his 1-yard touchdown with 12 seconds left gave the Lions a win over the Cowboys two weekends ago.
If Stafford's risky move hadn't worked, the Lions might have run out of time, but their franchise quarterback is proving he can be trusted to make the right decisions with the game on the line.
"That was, in my opinion, one of the most impressive things I've ever seen any quarterback do. That was something out of a movie. You couldn't script it any better," receiver Nate Burleson said. "If that wouldn't have worked, could you imagine the backlash he would have gotten? What I love is that he didn't care."
The 31-30 victory over the Cowboys on Oct. 27 enabled the Lions to enter their open date on a positive note. Detroit (5-3) is now in a three-way tie atop the NFC North with Green Bay and Chicago.
Stafford enters this week's road game against the Bears with a chance to become Detroit's career passing leader. He trails Bobby Layne by only 286 yards.
"Obviously, any time you break a record it's a humbling experience," Stafford said. "It's not like I'm going out there trying to break a record, I'm trying to win a game. But if I do so in the process, obviously I have a lot of respect for the history of this game and this franchise too, so it's something that, when and if it happens, I'm sure I'll reflect on it after the fact."
The Lions drafted Stafford with the top pick in 2009, but after two injury-filled seasons, he needed surgery on his right shoulder. He hasn't missed a start since then, and questions about his durability have faded.
"Obviously, I didn't like missing games my first two seasons," Stafford said. "I knew it would get back to normal soon enough."
In 2011, Stafford threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns, leading the Lions to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth. He passed for 4,967 yards last season, but the Lions went 4-12, and Stafford threw for only 20 TDs with 17 interceptions.
So he still had a lot to prove in 2013, especially since he entered this season with a 1-22 record against teams that went on to finish above .500.
This year, the Lions have beaten Chicago and Dallas, who at least at this point have winning records. The second of those victories came in exactly the type of situation when a quarterback needs to show poise. With no timeouts remaining, the 25-year-old Stafford drove the Lions 80 yards in 50 seconds, finally scoring on his game-winning sneak.
"He's smart when it comes to the sport of football," Burleson said. "What you can't coach is his ability to make certain throws. What's improving on a daily basis is his intelligence."
Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson have continued to post impressive numbers despite injuries to some of the team's other targets. Burleson is hoping to rejoin Detroit's offense soon. The veteran wide receiver hurt his arm in a car crash in late September, but he was at practice Tuesday — although coach Jim Schwartz said the team won't rush him back to a game if he's not ready.
"I've got to be smart," Burleson said. "If it was up to me I'd go out and risk it, but that's not necessarily the right thing to do always."
Stafford's career is a good example of how much patience a player has to have when he's hurt. In his second year in the league, he played only three games — but now he's about the surpass Layne's team record.
Stafford's peak may be still to come.
"I think there's a lot of other accomplishments that Matt has in front of him, other than being the career passing leader for the Detroit Lions. He's 25 years old," Schwartz said. "I don't think that record is going to be the hallmark of his career. There's a lot of other great things ahead of Matt Stafford."