Matthew Stafford

Down by four with 3:27 left in Sunday's game versus the Bears, Matthew Stafford took the shotgun snap and eluded defensive end Mitch Unrein before sneaking through four Chicago defenders into the end zone.

The Lions are making a habit of such fourth-quarter drama this season.

"Early on in the year, watching it was giving me a heart attack every week," Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy said. "But now it's kind of like you settle into it. You kind of know it's going to happen and you kind of expect to win."

The late-game theatrics, such as this 20-17 win against the Bears, have become the modus operandi for the 2016 Lions and their comeback king. Stafford has led the team to eight game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, the most by a quarterback in a single season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

"He's got an unusual knack to perform," Lions head coach Jim Caldwell said, "particularly when things are tight."

As one of the NFL's most clutch players, his narrative has changed.

Entering the 2016 season, critics ripped Stafford: He has never won a playoff game. He is 1-18 in his career on the road against teams that finished the season with a winning record. He has poor mechanics.

He was Jay Cutler lite, a cannon-armed quarterback who made poor decisions with his throws and couldn't win the big games.

Matthew Stafford

Now the 28-year-old is on pace for his fewest interceptions of any season in which he started more than three games. A serious MVP candidate, Stafford is one of only three quarterbacks -- Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan are the others -- who have thrown more than 20 touchdowns, more than 3,300 yards, seven or fewer interceptions and completed over 65 percent of their passes.

"He does much more than that for us," Caldwell said.

More than his stats, it's his leadership that has guided the 9-4 Lions to the top of the NFC North.

In Week 1 he chastised wide receiver Marvin Jones for not getting out of bounds late in the contest. Three weeks later Stafford berated Golden Tate for running the wrong route, leading to a crucial interception in a loss to the Bears.

Stafford demonstrated his moxie during his eight fourth-quarter/overtime comebacks:

Week 1 at Colts: Lions trail 35-34 with 37 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Stafford leads a 50-yard drive for the game-winning field goal in 33 seconds.

Week 5 vs. Eagles: Lions trail 23-21 with 2:34 left in the fourth quarter.
Stafford leads the game-winning, 34-yard field goal drive in 1:06.

Week 6 vs. Rams: Lions trail 28-21 with 14 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Stafford leads the game-tying, 84-yard touchdown and game-winning, 44-yard field goal drives.

Week 7 vs. Redskins: Lions trail 17-13 with 1:05 left in the fourth quarter.
Stafford leads the game-winning, 75-yard drive, culminating in an 18-yard strike to Anquan Boldin with 49 seconds left.

Week 9 at Vikings: Lions trail 16-13 with 23 seconds left in fourth quarter.
Stafford leads a 35-yard, field goal drive in 23 seconds to tie the contest and the game-winning, 87-yard touchdown drive in overtime.

Week 11 vs. Jaguars: Lions trail 19-16 with 13:32 left in the fourth quarter.
Stafford leads a 79-yard drive in 3:21 to take the fourth-quarter lead.

Week 12 vs. Vikings: Lions trail 13-10 with 12:30 left in the fourth quarter.
Stafford leads two field goal drives in the last four minutes.

Week 14 vs. Bears: Lions trail 17-13 with 7:07 left in the fourth quarter.
Stafford leads a 76-yard touchdown drive, culminating in his game-winning, seven-yard touchdown run.

Stafford has produced these heroics during a year in which many thought he would struggle, after the retirement of wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Instead Stafford has thrived.

SI Cover With Jay Cutler And Matthew Stafford

"We spread it around," Caldwell said. "He reads the series of progressions, according to what play is called. Whoever is open, he gets the ball to them."

Stafford throws to a variety of targets, including Jones and the 36-year-old Boldin. The veteran receiver attended Florida State, the alma mater of Stafford's parents, and Stafford grew up rooting for him in games.

How has Stafford -- despite losing Megatron -- seemingly turned a corner in his career?

The secret to his success began after the Lions started the 2015 season 1-6. The Lions then fired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and replaced him with Jim Bob Cooter.

"I love the name," joked Bears head coach John Fox during a conference call with Detroit-area reporters.

While head coach of the Broncos, Fox hired Cooter as an offensive assistant in 2013 and he tried to hire him as the Bears' offensive coordinator two years ago. The 32-year-old with the Dukes of Hazzard-like name has played a crucial role in Stafford's play taking off. Since Cooter became offensive coordinator in Week 8 of the 2015 season, Stafford has posted a 42:11 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Incorporating shorter routes, quicker passes and more no-huddle, the Lions won six of their nine games to finish 2015 at 7-9.

The Lions run a true spread look on offense, emphasizing 11-personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers). According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), the Lions employed this grouping on 70 percent of their snaps while the NFL averaged 59 percent, heading into Week 14.

With a young offensive line and a running game that ranked 29th in the NFL entering Week 14, the burden is on Stafford. Detroit has gone 49 games -- the longest streak in the NFL -- without a running back rushing for 100 yards. The last to do so was Reggie Bush on Nov. 28, 2013.

Matthew Stafford

To compensate for Detroit's lack of running game and protection issues, Stafford has attempted the second highest percentage (13.9 percent of pass plays through Week 14, according to PFF) of screen passes. And on 3rd-and-7 or longer, the Lions used screens 20.6 percent of the time -- the highest rate in the NFL.

Shorter and quicker passes are the key for Stafford, even though he possesses one of the NFL's strongest arms. Heading into Week 14, just 10.2 percent of his throws have traveled 20 or more yards downfield.

No matter the depth of his passes, Stafford can be very accurate. He demonstrated that Sunday, completing nine of his first 10 passes, including a third-down conversion when he fired a pass to Jones into a tiny window between linebacker Leonard Floyd and cornerback Tracy Porter.

But Bad Matt -- the Stafford of seasons past -- also surfaced against the Bears. His record-setting fourth-quarter comeback was necessitated because he threw a 24-yard, pick-6 with 7:07 left in the game.

"Everyone knew it was my fault," Stafford said. "It doesn't matter if they're good or bad plays, you have to flush them and move on."

Stafford also made a bad play on a third down during the first drive of the game, taking an 11-yard sack from Akiem Hicks, forcing the Lions out of field goal range.

Matthew Stafford

On the next drive, running back Zach Zenner went the wrong way, but Stafford compounded the mistake with a grounding penalty. On that same play, there was some Georgia Bulldog-on-Bulldog mayhem as Bears rookie Floyd whacked Stafford's hand, reportedly tearing a ligament and dislocating the quarterback's right middle finger.

Stafford wore a glove on his right hand the rest of the game, and it seemed to affect his delivery to his receivers.

"I just tried to play through it, play as good as I could," he said. "I let those guys know that it may not be pretty coming in there."

But despite the injury and the game-changing interception, Stafford bounced back just as he has all season.

"He's mentally tough," Caldwell said. "He leads our group and does a tremendous job of that."

And now he has his team two games up in the NFC North with three games to play.

Follow Jeff Fedotin on Twitter @JFedotin.