First of all, they won.
Now. About that first quarter. I’ll be nice.
It was horrendous.
The Lions started the 2017 season the way a disinterested 6-year-old starts a piano lesson: forgetting the basics, hitting clunkers, and looking like he doesn’t want to be there.
First, Matthew Stafford’s opening throw went right into the hands of a defender, who returned it for a touchdown.
Two series later, on third down, Stafford launched a shovel pass to nobody.
Then Detroit’s new punter, Kasey Redfern, standing in the end zone, fumbled the snap. And instead of taking a safety, he went brain-dead and tried to run it out; he got just far enough to get clobbered — and injured — leaving a 33-year-old place kicker, Matt Prater, as the Lions’ only available punter.
Cue the clowns? Wait. We’re not done. A Lions penalty on a field-goal try gave the Arizona Cardinals four more shots at the end zone. On a field goal?
And on the ensuing kickoff, Dwayne Washington dropped the ball in the end zone and he, too, went brain-dead, and tried to run it out.
He got to the 7.
The Lions finished the quarter with an interception, a fumble, six net yards, three penalties, two really dumb decisions, no punter, and zero points.
Which begs just one question:
How the heck did they win this game?
“I think we should consider ourselves very blessed and lucky,” Golden Tate said, grinning after the 35-23 head-scratching victory. “You make that many mistakes that early, it can get out of hand real quick. But because our defense played so great today, we looked up and felt like it should be 21-0, but it was only 10-0.”
And then the piano teacher whacked the Lions on the wrists.
And they woke up.
And they won.
Really. They won.
Bad start, stellar finish
“You don’t want to completely implode,” coach Jim Caldwell said, when asked his thoughts on the Keystone Cops beginning. “We had a multitude of issues that popped up.”
I’ll say. About the only thing missing was Bubonic plague.
But they won! They are 1-0. And don’t take this out of context. But it was a terrific victory. Not a terrific game. The game was bananas. I haven’t seen that many interceptions thrown straight into defenders’ arms since the pimply kid who lived next door to me was the quarterback.
But the win was big because it so easily could have been bad start, worse finish. And let’s face it: Past Lions teams would have made sure of it. They would have laid this egg with a thud.
Instead, the 2017 Lions won Sunday — against a team that two years ago went to the NFC championship — and they won going away. They won because the defense refused to succumb to karma. They won because Stafford is great at shaking off negativity. They won because Kenny Golladay, the Rookie of Great Expectations, stopped dropping balls and started catching them — two for impressive touchdowns, a fade jump in the end zone and a dive and stretch for a 45-yard score.
They won because TJ Jones came up big when they needed big. They won because Prater stopped the special teams bleeding, making a 58-yard field goal and handling the punting duties admirably, considering he’d never punted in an NFL game before. (“I’m going to definitely have a few ice bags on my leg,” Prater said.)
They won because Arizona caught up then surpassed Detroit in mistakes — three interceptions, one lost fumble, six penalties — and lost their best offensive threat, David Johnson, and their starting left tackle, D.J. Humphries, to injuries.
And they won because, if this team has an identity at all, it lies in believing the game isn’t lost just because you trail in the fourth quarter. Eight of last season’s nine wins came under those circumstances. Now the season opener does as well. Stafford gets credit for another fourth-quarter comeback (which gives him, what, 2 million for his career?)
“It wasn’t pretty,” he admitted, after racking up four TDs and 292 passing yards, plus an impressive 15-yard run. “Bunch of penalties, some mistakes, turned the ball over, and obviously I don’t want to throw a touchdown to the other team on my first pass of the season.
“But we’re a resilient group.”
Setting a (positive) tone
A word here about Teryl Austin’s defense. It held Arizona to 45 yards rushing. That’s impressive. It surrendered only one touchdown when the game was in contention. It may not have sacked Carson Palmer more than once, but there was enough disruption to fuzzy the Cardinals’ screens.
And before Johnson got hurt, the Lions held him to an average of two yards a carry. This was a guy who had nearly 1,300 yards rushing last season.
“We just wanted to make sure we knew where he was at all times and make sure we put bodies on him,” safety Glover Quin said. “Hit him, hit him, hit him, continue to hit him and see if he can take it for four quarters.”
How about a shout-out to the rookie, Golladay. Nervous? Sure. He bobbled balls early and was out of sync with his quarterback. But when it counted, he showed up. Two huge fourth-quarter touchdowns, both of them difficult catches.
“You want to go out there and make plays and not screw up,” he said in the Lions locker room, addressing his early miscues. “But you can’t let that affect your game, that can bring you down and now you’ve messed up everything … I knew my time would come.”
Apparently the Lions did, too.
Look, no one is overreacting. This is one game. And it’s the season opener.
But…it’s the season opener. And those can set a tone. And given who the Lions play next — the Giants on the road, the Falcons here, the Vikings on the road — you didn’t want that tone to sound like, well, a 6-year-old’s piano lesson.
“We got in our own way early,” Stafford said, summing it up. “We’ve just got to get out of our own way a little earlier.”
If that’s not a Lion-ism, I don’t know what is.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.