Romeo Okwara was still sweating in the locker room, even after he’d showered and dressed. The Detroit Lions defensive end had spent the whole game running after Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. Someone asked him if, when he finally sacked Rodgers, he allowed himself a moment of satisfaction. He shook his head no.
“Even then,” he said, “you don’t know if he threw the ball.”
Chase till you drop — or until they drop. The Lions have been pursuing Rodgers and the Packers for so long, that even on days when they catch them, even when they rack up a 24-0 halftime lead, even when the Packers’ kicker misses four field goals and an extra point, there are still worries that the beast isn’t dead.
Okwara began that pattern with a strip-sack early in the first quarter that the Lions turned into a field goal and a 17-0 lead.
Da’Shawn Hand, a rookie, continued the havoc with another Rodgers strip-sack that Hand recovered himself, late in the second quarter, that led to a Lions touchdown and a 24-0 lead.
Between those two forced fumbles, and several other sacks, the normally unflappable Rodgers was left slapping his fist in frustration. Oh, how Detroit fans love to see that. The Lions corralled the Packers long enough to tame them, took advantage of every kind of Green Bay screw up, and hung on for a 31-23 win that wasn’t as close as the final score, and wasn’t at all a reflection of the stats.
Get this: the Packers had 521 yards of offense, nearly twice what the Lions had, and had 12 more first downs. But mistakes tell more than yards in the NFL, and while the Packers/Lions rivalry has more than its share of Detroit historically fumbling and bumbling, this time it was the men in green and cheesy yellow turning the ball over.
And the Lions had very little sympathy.
None, in fact.
Why should they?
‘We were able to withstand it’
“The first half was really good, I was glad to see us perform like that,” said linebacker Devon Kennard, who recovered one of Rodgers’ fumbles. “Second half got tough, we knew they were going to come back and Aaron Rodgers was going to do what he does. We were able to withstand it, so that’s good.”
Maybe this is who these Lions will be, winning the games you expect them to lose, losing the ones you expect them to win, leaving you to expect nothing and everything at the same time. If so, well, aren’t you used to it by now? People don’t become Lions fans if they can’t stand upset stomachs.
But so far, the Lions’ thrills (a domination of the Patriots on national TV; a 24-point lead on archrival Green Bay) pretty much equal their spills (an embarrassing home opener on Monday Night Football; a blown chance against the Cowboys in Dallas).
Such are the signs of a team in transition, an irregular heartbeat that is still settling in the chest cavity of the bearded, pencil-in-his-ear, new head coach Matt Patricia.
“I’m just proud of our guys for competing,” Patricia said, after the win boosted the Lions to 2-3 going into the bye week. “They had good mental toughness throughout the course of the game and just hung in there and kept battling until the end.”
And that is what it took, because even down 24-0, the Packers were hardly finished. They pulled within 10 points in the second half, before the Lions managed to sustain a drive to the end zone, a nice Matthew Stafford-to-Kenny Golladay strike that put the game out of reach — or, when you’re dealing with Rodgers and the Packers, just out of reach.
Yes, fans will want to talk about the Stafford-Golladay connection, as the second-year receiver continues to grow more and more into Stafford’s go-to, big-play guy (despite Stafford’s diplomatic claims that all three receivers are his go-to guys). Golladay also made a great sideline grab, twisting and running and straight-arming Ha-Ha Clinton Dix, an excellent defender, for a 60-yard play earlier in the game. He finished with four catches for 98 yards, and his biggest catch of the day, a touchdown bomb, was called back for an offensive line penalty.
“If they want to throw it to me five times or four times a game or nine times a game,” he said, afterwards, “I just want to make all the plays.”
That’s 3 straight wins vs. Packers
That’s all good. But truth be told, it wasn’t the offense that won this one, even with 31 points. It was the defense that got after Rodgers. When you beat the Packers, it almost always means you beat No. 12
“This team is all about the quarterback,” Okwara confirmed. “Main thing…take care of (Rodgers) and try to corral him.”
Which is a bit like trying to corral a water bug. But the Lions did it. And it’s important to remember that both Okwara and Hand were backups at the start of the season, pressed into more action with the injury to Ziggy Ansah.
Neither Okwara, 23, nor Hand, 22, were with the Lions last year. But they carry good pedigrees. Hand is a rookie out of Alabama, a kid once considered the top prep recruit in the nation. Okwara played at Notre Dame, but went undrafted, joined the Giants for a while and was a late pickup off the waiver wire for Detroit just before the season started.
Yet here they were, two new Lions, taking on an old Detroit curse and helping to put an end to it. Yes, this was the same franchise that regularly and thoroughly embarrassed the Lions over the last few decades, from Brett Favre’s last-minute touchdown pass to end the Lions’ playoffs in 1993 to Rodgers’ Hail Mary for the ages that the whole country watched on national TV. You know that song “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover?” It felt like there were 50 ways to lose to the Packers.
But believe it or not, the Lions have now defeated Green Bay three straight times, and that hasn’t happened in nearly 30 years.
No, that doesn’t make them better than the Packers, and no, it doesn’t improve them to even a winning record. But in the crazy NFC North, the Lions are still in the hunt, and they’ve shown, if nothing else, that they are unpredictable, and you have to keep watching.
“When you were at Notre Dame, was there anybody you sacked in college that you can compare to sacking Aaron Rodgers?” someone asked Okwara.
“I don’t think anyone,” he said, grinning, “compares to Aaron Rodgers.”
Spoken like a true Lion. But, for a change, one who just beat the guy.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.