The house was on fire, the hostile crowd was wild, conventional wisdom called for surrender, punt the ball, you have the lead, it’s fourth-and-2 on the opponent’s 45-yard line, only a few minutes left in the game. You gotta punt it, right?
Dan Campbell didn’t need a microsecond.
“GO!” he screamed, his face nearly crimson.
So the Detroit Lions went. They went for broke. They went for glory. Jared Goff took the fourth-down snap, dropped back, released a pass …
And the ball was knocked down.
It could have been a classic Detroit overreach. A blunder that cost the night.
But not this night.
Less than three minutes later, the Lions STILL won. They just defeated the Super Bowl champions, on the road, in the season opener, in front of the whole world, because “Go!” with this team doesn’t just mean “Go!” It means “Don’t stop!”
So the Lions didn’t stop. A team that hadn’t won an opener in six years, a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1990s, a team last seen beating a legend, Aaron Rodgers, in Lambeau Field, dug in, squeezed the mighty Chiefs until they went limp, and beat a second legend, Patrick Mahomes, in a second football temple, Arrowhead Stadium.
They did it with grit, with power, with offensive line dominance, with timely completions, with a successful fake punt inside their own 20 yard-line, with a ramrod rushing attack, and with a surprisingly tight defense, their weakest link last season. They shut down Mahomes, the face of the league, harassing his receivers into 18 incompletions, and pushing him farther and farther backward, until his final play was fourth-and-25.
And no, he didn’t convert that.
“You either get a thumbs-up or a thumbs down in this league,“ said NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth after Detroit held on to upset the champs, 21-20. “And the Lions just got a thumbs-up.”
Yes, they did.
They found Superman’s kryptonite
Stop rubbing your eyes, folks. We’re not making this up. The Lions, scoring just 14 points on offense, defeated mighty Kansas City by gaining more first downs, winning time of possession, throwing no interceptions, and limiting Mahomes to only a few magical plays, instead of his normal bagful.
“You guys give Patrick Mahomes the ball back, with two and a half minutes to go, Chiefs down by one,” NBC’s Melissa Stark asked Goff. “We’ve seen this script before. What’s going through your mind?”
“Not today,” Goff answered. “Not with our crew out there.”
Not today. The Lions secondary, buoyed by newly acquired trash-talker C.J. Gardner-Johnson, broke up passes and blanketed routes. They forced K.C. into a holding penalty, then a false start penalty, until fourth-and-25 was all the Chiefs had left, and even Mahomes couldn’t make that one happen.
This on a night when the Lions rookies — tight end Sam LaPorta, running back Jahmyr Gibbs, linebacker Jack Campbell, and defensive back Brian Branch — all made key contributions, making Brad Holmes look even smarter than he’s been looking lately. Branch had a one-handed interception that he returned for a touchdown. I think it was the first time he touched a regular-season NFL football.
Consider what the Lions did here. They went on the road, to face a team was 9-1 in openers under coach Andy Reid, and 5-0 in openers with Mahomes under center. And they shut them both down! Against this revamped Lions defense, Mahomes, at times, looked — and I know this is sacrilege — mortal.
The funny thing is, the Lions weren’t perfect themselves. Marvin Jones fumbled in the red zone to kill a promising drive. A snap hit their own man and Goff had to scramble save the ball. They didn’t convert that late fourth-down call.
But when they needed to be solid, they were a sequoia tree.
Far from the ‘Same Old Lions’
The stretch that won them the game began, as such stretches often do, with an almost unnoticed sequence. Fourth quarter, Chiefs up, 17-14, and holding the ball, second and one, at the Lions 20.
At that moment, it seemed to all the world that Mahomes would finish the drive with some whimsical touchdown, the lead would be double digits, NBC would cut to a State Farm commercial featuring — of course — Mahomes, and the Lions would fold when they came back.
Instead, the Lions stuffed the second-and-1 jet sweep attempt for a loss.
On third-and-2, they got good pressure and forced an incompletion.
K.C. kicked a field goal, and Detroit was only down six instead of 10.
That was critical.
On the ensuing drive, facing a third-and-12, Goff didn’t blink. He found Josh Reynolds over the middle for 18 yards. It was the kind of play Goff made all night, standing tall, enjoying the extra second of protection that this well-assembled line now provides, and laser-passing to an open receiver.
A few plays later, Goff hit his biggest pass of the night, a 33-yarder, again to Reynolds, and the Lions then rode newly acquired David Montgomery into the end zone. It was 21-20, and while most of the world thought the Chiefs would come back, the Lions apparently did not.
Not today, as Goff said.
Maybe not this year.
If you thought the hype was wild before …
Now, a word of caution, in case you are Googling “How to buy Super Bowl tickets.” The first week in the NFL is notorious for red herrings. Three years ago, lowly-regarded Jacksonville beat Indianapolis, 27-20, in the season opener.
It would be the only game Jacksonville won all year.
Twenty years ago, New England lost, 31-0, to Buffalo in their season premiere. The Patriots would go on to win the Super Bowl. The Bills would finish 6-10.
So when Goff was asked what this game means to Detroit, and he told NBC, “It means we’re 1-0,” he’s showing the right attitude.
Just as the Lions’ performance Thursday night showed the right stuff for an opener. Not a ton of mistakes. Good timing. Hey. Considering this was the first time Campbell unwrapped the offense all year, it looked remarkably smooth. The Lions had a total of four penalties. Goff needed one series to get his rhythm, and was then as sharp as a Ginsu knife set. He outdueled Mahomes, had more yards (253) and more completions — especially when it mattered most.
Still as Goff said, it just means they’re 1-0.
On the other hand …
It was one game, but it was more than one game. It was one win, but it was bigger than one win. It was a reversal of fortune, in what everyone in the Motor City hopes is a permanent change in direction. It sure looked real Thursday night. And if nothing else, it gives fans an awful lot to chew on over the next 10 days, until the Lions play again.
Just before Thursday’s opener began, Collinsworth told the national audience: “The hype train is over, Detroit. Time to go to work.”
They went to work, all right. But the train is now opposite from over. It’s motoring down the tracks. That’s what happens when you yell “GO!”