Gripping win for Lions, but how bad will Stafford injury hurt?

Thanks to glove, Lions hold on to first place in NFC North, but does entire season now rest on QB’s right middle finger?

The team was going backward and he was, too, backpedaling from the line of scrimmage to the 12, the 15, the 19. The house was on fire. The fans were in a rage. A lead had become a deficit. Two should-have-been scoring drives had ended in interceptions. The clock ticked down toward three minutes left …

Matthew Stafford, wearing a glove on his right hand over a bandaged finger, looked downfield, pulled the ball in, and, amid a coming wave of Chicago jerseys, made a flash decision.

Forward, ho.

“Matt’s got crazy legs,” Kerry Hyder, a Detroit Lions defensive lineman, would say after what happened next, an unlikely play that gave the Lions an unlikely lead, an unlikely NFL record, and, oh, yeah, ensured them a winning season for 2016.

Here’s what it looked like. Stafford took off running. A Chicago lineman dove for him and missed. Stafford accelerated. A linebacker went for him and whiffed. Stafford bulled toward the end zone, he banged off several bodies, he got upended, but made it through, and as the crowd went crazy, he went to slam the ball and it came out of his hands. He laughed. Who cares about the spike? He’d accomplished his goal.

“Once I decided to run, I was getting in,” Stafford would declare.

Forward, ho. Just when you thought the Lions would slip into old habits, drop a home game to a lowly division rival, stumble with penalties and turnovers and third-down conversions — just when you swore you could hear the crash coming, they jerked the throttle and came out of the tailspin.

And held on to win, 20-17.

And kept their grip on first place.

And won their fifth straight.

And set an NFL record for most fourth-quarter comebacks in a season (eight).

And made the playoffs in January an increasingly likely Detroit event.

Forward, ho.

Watch until the end

“In football there’s going to come times where things are not going to go your way,” receiver Anquan Boldin said after this latest comeback victory. “But I think those are the times that show the true character of your team.”

Consider what transpired in the minutes before that Stafford touchdown. The Lions had been driving downfield with a 13-10 lead. They’d reached the Chicago 9. At the very least, that’s a field goal, right? Or, with better luck, a touchdown for a two-score lead?

Or, with no luck, this: a pass from Stafford into the end zone that got tipped, banged off Golden Tate’s body, and was intercepted with a diving catch by Chicago’s Demontre Hurst.

No points.

Minutes later, having finally stopped a long Bears drive, the Lions were pinned back in their own territory. Stafford telegraphed a sideline pass, it was intercepted by Cre’Von LeBlanc, the Bears cornerback, and he ran it untouched into the end zone for a pick-six and a 17-13 lead.

Two fourth-quarter drives. Two turnovers. Seven points for the other team. A lot of teams would feel the weight of that karma. A lot of past Lions teams would have already been lamenting the loss.

Those teams didn’t have No. 9 at quarterback.

“Was Stafford more intense after throwing that pick-six?” someone asked coach Jim Caldwell. “Did he come out wanting to make up for it?”

“No,” Caldwell said, grinning. “I know you guys like to look for theatrics (but) there’s not a whole lot of that.

“I’d like to tell you ‘He came back with steely eyes and focus.’ It’s not the way it is.”

Why should it be? Late-game deficits are the norm for Stafford. Heck, I don’t think his car starts until the fourth quarter. He came right back onto the field, and methodically drove his team 76 yards on seven plays, benefiting from a great Boldin catch, a timely Chicago pass interference play, and of course, his Barry Sanders impersonation for the winning score.

“I’ve played this position for a long time,” Stafford said afterward, a bandage around his middle finger. “I’ve had really good plays and really bad plays … That (the pick-six) was a bad play. You gotta flush ’em and move on. They teach you that in quarterback 101.”

Getting real now

But they don’t teach you this in Lions 101. A 9-4 record. Eight wins in their last nine games. A two-game lead on the next-closest division rival.

Are they doing it in dominant fashion? Hardly. Sunday’s ship had plenty of leaks. Too many holding penalties. Early struggles with the run. Big plays surrendered on defense. And once again, the tendency to make unknown starting quarterbacks (this time a former third-stringer named Matt Barkley) look like All-Pro candidates.

But they find a way to do just enough. Time of possession is a huge weapon (34:17 to 25:43 on Sunday.) So is a bend-but-don’t-break defense that has now gone seven games without allowing more than 20 points to any opponent.

Besides, the NFL is about winning. It spackles every hole. The Lions have won as many games as all but one team in the NFC.

And it’s mid-December, folks.

And now it gets truly interesting. The Lions have two huge road games — the Giants in New Jersey and the Cowboys in Texas — before their final red-letter game with Green Bay on New Year’s Day.

If they win one of those three, it’s nearly certain they’re in the playoffs. Win two and they’ll capture the division. Lose all three and …

Well, we’re not going there. Stafford’s middle finger will cause enough consternation for fans. Early reports suggested torn ligaments and a dislocation.

Then again, he did all that fourth-quarter magic with the digit already injured. And, obviously, toughness is not a problem.

“We know every game is gonna be a battle,” Stafford said. “But finding ways to win is what we do.”

After so many years of finding ways to lose, it’s like a cleansing waterfall.

Forward, ho. The first-place Lions. This franchise has become must-watch football. And don’t even pretend to say you saw it coming.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. 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.

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