By: Will Burchfield

Golden Tate believes the Lions are close to chasing championships year in and year out — one piece away, in fact.

READ MORE: CDC: New Listeria Outbreak Tied To 23 Illnesses, 1 Death

(That piece, Tate wants you to know, is not the team’s soon-to-be-fired head coach.)

But Matthew Stafford isn’t so bullish on Detroit’s ability to become a consistent contender. He feels there are too many unknowns heading into the offseason. He’s also been here too many times before.

Asked how close the Lions are to winning their division or winning a playoff game following a second consecutive 9-7 season, Stafford wouldn’t say.

“You look at rosters every year and there’s turnover. There’s new guys and new faces in new places, so it’s tough to give you an assessment on that,” Stafford said.

The Lions made the playoffs for the second time in three seasons last year, but failed to build on that momentum in 2017. Despite their disappointing finish, Tate believes they were perhaps a few plays away from claiming the top seed in the NFC.

“I think you give us six, seven, eight plays back over a 16-game season, we’re sitting here wearing a divisional hat, maybe sitting here with a bye week with home playoff games,” Tate said.

Whether or not Stafford would agree, he’s not sure what that means for 2018 and beyond. After all, he’s never made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. Being close offers no guarantees.

“Inevitably, players that are on our team right now are not going to be here next year. We’re going to have new guys. It’s kind of hard to give an honest opinion on that. I don’t know everybody’s situation of who’s going to be back and who isn’t. I just know that I had a ton of fun playing this year. I wish we had a chance to keep playing,” Stafford said.

READ MORE: Red Wings Hire Lightning Assistant Derek Lalonde As Coach

Stafford has played past the regular season just three times in his nine-year career. He’s yet to win a playoff game.

“There’s no question about it, that’s what we play this game for. I had a blast with these guys. A bunch of guys that work really hard, a bunch of guys that come to work every day with the right attitude. We just fell a little bit short,” he said.

One bright spot for the Lions this season was the development of their youth. Several rookies and second-year players saw significant time, and many of them rose to the challenge.

“I think everybody has to continue to improve,” Stafford said. “I don’t care what year you are in this league, you have to find ways to improve, myself included. We’ll kind of decompress and take a look at the season and find ways to get better, and I think everybody on our team has an opportunity to do that.”

Stafford enjoyed another strong season, his second in a row under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. Since Cooter replaced Joe Lombardi midway through the 2015 season, Stafford has been a noticeably more efficient quarterback.

Perhaps that’s where he senses the most optimism moving forward.

“I really enjoy playing for Jim Bob. He and I have a really good relationship both on and off the field,” Stafford said. “I see football the same way he sees it. He enjoys calling it the way I like to play it.

“We’ve kind of done it a bunch of different ways. Last year we couldn’t buy a big play; we were 10-, 12-, 14-play drives for touchdowns. This year we had a bunch of big plays. He does a good job of dialing up some plays for some guys and those guys were out there making plays. He’s been good for me and my ability to grow as a player.”

Ultimately, it was a shoulda-coulda-woulda season for the Lions, a far too familiar conclusion for Stafford. In sizing up the future, that’s why he’s hesitant to put stock in the present.

MORE NEWS: Troubling Arsenic Levels Found At Some Detroit Demolition Sites

“I think that’s kind of the story of a lot of seasons. Either those plays happen for you or they don’t. They didn’t happen for us a couple times this year that would’ve been big ones. … I don’t know if I’ll lament all that kind of stuff,” Stafford said. “It’ll be more so, man, find a way to get a win here or there that maybe propels us.”