Detroit Lions vs Atlanta Falcons: Matthew Stafford ready for 'unique opportunity' at Wembley

The NFL International Series returns for what could be a shoot-out in London

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The Independent Online

The NFL returns to London this week for what should be a better game than the Wembley crowd has seen in recent outings.

Just one of the last four outings has truly been a thriller for the London crowd, with each of the last two games unfortunately ending in one-sided victories.

The Detroit Lions possess arguably the best defence in the league, though their usually high-powered attack has been struggling without star wideout Calvin Johnson, while the Atlanta Falcons are capable of putting up huge numbers and breaking big plays, even if they have defensive woes of their own.

As with many games in the NFL, above all else this match will be a tale of two quarterbacks.

Matthew Stafford of the Lions and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan are two of the premier talents in the sport, with multiple 4,000-yard seasons under their belts. Both should surpass that mark again this season.

For Detroit (5-2), a team who have made the play-offs just once since the turn of the century, their season has been counter-intuitive.

Without Johnson, arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL, Stafford and Co on the offensive side of the ball have struggled, but the Lions sit at 5-2, top of the NFC North, thanks to one of the most dominant defences in the league. The defence had been a weakness for the club in recent seasons, with Stafford and Johnson often called upon to bail them out.

But with Johnson having played just four full games this season, and averaging the second lowest average of his career, Stafford and the offence have taken a back seat.

Stafford, speaking to a group of British journalists said it was “fun to watch” the defence operating at such a high level.

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Star receiver Calvin Johnson has been injured but could return

“They're playing at a very high level right now they're stopping the run, getting after the quarterback, defending the press, they're doing it all, it's fun to watch,” said the 26-year-old.

“As an offence we're trying to play as ball-secure as we can, let our defence go out there and get turnovers for us. It's been a successful formula so far, so hopefully we can keep it going.”

Stafford is under no illusions about the impact that Johnson could have should he take the field for the Lions at Wembley. The 6ft 5in receiver, nicknamed Megatron, has averaged 100 yards-per-game in each of the last three seasons and has reached double figures in touchdowns in four of the last six.

There is a chance he plays on Sunday.

“He helps our entire offence, obviously he’s a match-up nightmare for defences, he opens things up for a lot of other guys on our team,” said Stafford.

“But guys have stepped up without him and increased their role and increased their productivity. That's what you have to have in this league, because injuries are a part of it and we're just finding ways to win while we get everybody healthy.”

The Lions have failed to put up big offensive numbers so far this year but have come through when needed. Last Sunday, trailing by 13 points with less than four minutes remaining, Stafford led the Lions to 24-23 win over the New Orleans Saints thanks to two late touchdown drives.

The Falcons (2-5) have had the opposite problem. Only Indianapolis Colts star Andrew Luck has thrown more passing yards than the Atlanta quarterback this season, and he has 13 touchdowns in his first seven games.

But defensively the Falcons are the second worst in the league in points conceded and third worst in yards-per game; their run-defence is particularly poor.

If Johnson does return and the Lions offence rediscovers its mojo – they were the sixth best offence last year – then Wembley could have a shoot-out to look forward to.

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Matt Ryan is one of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL

On the Falcons, Stafford was full of praise: “They're a talented team, when they play as good a football as they can play they're tough to stop. Just like everybody in the NFL we've got to attack to them with our full force and make sure we're ready to get after them.

“Matt is a very talented player he's got a great supporting cast, and they use all those players extremely well.”

As with the majority of the players who come to play in London, Stafford says he is “excited” for a “unique opportunity”.

“I think guys are generally excited, obviously there's a quire few more logistics that goes into traveling to London then there does somewhere here Stateside,” he said.

“But I think guys are excited, it's a unique opportunity. A lot of guys on our team haven't been to London before, it's a cool travel opportunity but at the same time it's a great time for us to show our talents not only to people in the US but also to the people in Europe as well.”

A permanent London franchise is always a hot topic of conversation when the NFL rolls into town and fuel was added to that fire when Falcons owner Arthur Blank said he thinks it could be a reality in the next five or six years.

Stafford says: “It's an interesting dynamic, I don't know all the logistics, how it would work, I'm sure it could be figured out if somebody put their mind to it. I’m sure that's something some people are talking about with a higher pay grade then me. I think it's interesting to think about, obviously the travel would be the one of the biggest issues.”

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Detroit are in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, the NFC North

Not so long ago, in 2008, the Lions lost every one of their 16 games. Stafford being drafted in Detroit was a direct product of that season. The University of Georgia alumni has just one play-off game under his belt but despite his team’s strong start, says nobody in the organisation is talking about another trip to the post-season just yet.

“It’s way to long, way too far off to think about at this point, we’re just taking it week by week. We understand that you can't get ahead of yourself, we've been a part of situations where we didn't succeed in the second half of the season and we want to make sure that doesn't happen again.

In a tough NFC North the Lions are battling with the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings for a spot in the play-offs. Crucially Detroit have already won two of their six games against their rivals.

“It's important, obviously, to play well against your division opponents, that's the biggest part: winning your  divisional games and giving yourself a chance to win the division. So far we've done a good job but we have a few more tests left inside our division. But it's something we take great pride in, trying to play as good as we possibly can.”

The Lions are just one of four teams, along with the Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars to never have been to the Super Bowl. They have been in the league since 1930, longer than any of the other three by quite a distance.

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The NFL returns to Wembley for the second of three games this year

In short, they are the least successful team in the NFL. Many British fans are already die-hard supporters of their teams, having followed the league since at least the 1980s.

So why should you start supporting the Lions?

“We're an exciting team to watch, we have a lot of talented players,” he hesitates, “that would be my pitch… I'm not much of a salesman I guess.”

The Detroit Lions take on the Atlanta Falcons at Wembley on Sunday. Kick-off is at 1.30pm.

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