Who were those aliens in blue, and what did they do with our Detroit Lions?
The team that played at Ford Field Sunday night had as much relation to the one that played there two weeks earlier as I have to Brad Pitt.
Oh they wore the same numbers. There was No. 9, Stafford, and No. 33, Johnson, and No. 23, Slay, and No. 77, Ragnow, and the coach, the hirsute Matt Patricia, who, let’s face it, can only look like himself.
But just like those pod people who snatch your body when you are sleeping, some ghostly outside forces inhabited the Lions frames Sunday night, the thick ones, the thin ones, the beefy, the lithe, even the kickers. From top to bottom, they played a nearly flawless game. And they beat the New England Patriots, soundly. Final score: 26-10.
And it wasn’t that close.
Who WERE those guys? And where have they been all season? It was as if Patricia’s Popeye spinach kicked in just before the coin toss. Suddenly, his team had muscles on their muscles. Suddenly every play he called looked brilliant. Suddenly the blocking schemes were opening holes the size of a Buick.
Suddenly, Matthew Stafford had time to look off receivers. Suddenly, his passes were pinpoint, not too long or too low, but right where they should be.
Suddenly, the bugaboos that have haunted the Lions this year — and, truth be told, most years — disappeared as if written in invisible ink.
Third-down conversions — long a sticking point with Detroit offenses? Forget it. The Lions converted half of their third downs, while allowing the Patriots only two.
First downs? Forget it. Detroit had 13 first downs before New England had one.
Running game? Or as we said the last two weeks, “WHAT running game?” Ahem. How’s 159 yards, including 101 yards for Kerryon Johnson, the first Lion in four and a half years to pass the 100-yard mark?
“I’m just glad I don’t have to hear about it anymore,” Stafford told NBC after the win. He was talking about the streak of bad rushing games.
He could have been talking about anything.
Lions earn some respect
Because, come clean, folks, the Lions shouldn’t have to hear about anything now. All those people who buried this team after the Monday Night Massacre must lift them back up after this Sunday Night Miracle. If you’re going to let one game shade your entire season’s perspective, then you should be predicting playoffs this morning.
It’s only fair. Patricia and the Lions had more dirt shoveled on them than a landfill. Even for Lions fans, the vitriol after the season opener was extreme. Worst game I’ve ever seen. They were totally confused. Patricia has already lost the team.
If it’s OK to make sweeping denigrations like that after one loss, then it’s OK to go overboard after one win. Might as well predict a division title. After all, whether you were part of the crowd that stuffed Ford Field, or, like me, one of the millions who watched on network TV with their mouths hanging open, you witnessed the Lions manhandle the most successful franchise in modern football history. They held Tom Brady to 133 yards passing, sacked him twice and intercepted him once, a key interception, when he was trying to lead the Patriots back late.
The fact is (and I know, I can’t believe I’m saying this myself) Patricia made Bill Belichick, his old boss, look outcoached. Maybe working for him all those years, Patricia managed to steal some files on microfilm. Or bug the phones. But he coached as if he knew where the Pats were going on every play. He had the Lions shadowing Rob Gronkowski as if he were Hannibal Lecter on a coffee break.
The Lions, who’d let the Jets and the 49ers run up the scoreboard, were miserly with the Patriots: less than 90 yards rushing allowed, only one touchdown.
Meanwhile, Detroit’s first three drives ended in points. They didn’t punt until the fourth quarter. They committed just six penalties (which around here is like party time) and they sacked the opposing quarterback twice.
And those sacks were by Eli Harold. Eli Harold? Honk if you even knew he was on the team.
A season saved
But that’s how complete this performance was. It was a red letter date, a game seen by the whole country, a win that, in no uncertain terms, kept the season alive. It was already a crazy week in the NFL, with Minnesota getting stomped by Buffalo, Green Bay unable to keep pace with Washington, and Chicago needing a late escape against a winless Arizona team. When the smoke cleared, the Lions were just one game out of the NFC North lead, and had the same record as the Patriots, one win and two losses.
Only the Lions looked headed in the better direction.
They never trailed in this game. They were never in serious trouble. They maintained their confidence, they drove methodically, they were not the beneficiaries of some weird bounces or some lucky deflections. They virtually doubled the Pats offensive yards, and nearly doubled their time of possession. They earned what they got and they took what they deserved.
They were the better team by far.
I know. I know. How can this be?
Well, here’s one theory: A new coach with new demands takes a while to be effective. Sunday night, it might have begun to kick in.
Here’s another theory. Particia knows more about the Patriots than any other NFL head coach these days. His game plan was like stealing code. And it worked.
Here’s another theory: The Lions were just sick of losing. Remember that inside every NFL locker room is a group of players who were stars in college and superstars in high school. They don’t cotton to losing. It’s not part of who they are, or at least who they were, and after losing for a while, they get fed up, and effort boils and anger roils, and you get full body tackles and total pass-route concentration and blocks that last until the receiver or running back is on his way.
Because deep down they can do it.
And deep down, they are sick of not doing it.
That’s how the Lions played Sunday night. It was a thing of beauty. Maybe we see it again next week in Dallas. Or maybe the aliens get back in their ship and leave the crumpled remains of our football team to wake up with a splitting headache and no memory of the fireworks they provided.
Whatever the case, for one glorious Sunday night, even the most cynical Loins fan had to be impressed. The first win of the Matt Patricia era will always at least equal his opening two losses, and the box score will forever make long-suffering Lions fans do two things:
And scratch their heads.
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.