Lions’ sheer will holds promise for rest of year

by | Oct 28, 2013 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

Matthew Stafford was running and screaming as if his uniform were on fire, imploring teammates to get up to the line, including left tackle Riley Reiff, who was prematurely celebrating halfway down the field. “Get up!” Stafford hollered. “Clock it! Clock it!” Less than 20 seconds were left in the game. The Lions rapidly jumped into position on the goal line. Stafford screamed, “Spike! Spike!”

Far on the right, Calvin Johnson, his chest still heaving from a record-setting 14th catch Sunday, looked to his left, watched Stafford take the snap, and then, for the first time on this crazy afternoon, did nothing, stood still like everyone else who was expecting Stafford to spike it to stop the clock – everyone except Stafford, who leaped over the uncoiled bodies, extending the ball with two hands like a guy trying to jump a box onto the top shelf.

Johnson threw his palms in the air. Touchdown!

“What goes through your mind when you see that?” someone asked him later.

“We won the game,” he laughed.

It was the worst of middles, it was the best of endings. It was the worst of mistakes, it was the best of making up for them. It was the worst kind of “we can do better,” it was the best kind of “we just did.”

On a day at Ford Field when they committed four turnovers (and Dallas committed none), the Lions, who for years would have dropped a game like this 99 out of 99 times, not only won it but expected to win it – despite trailing, 30-24, with just 62 seconds left, with 80 yards to go, with the stadium half-emptied by fans who felt a familiar sense of déjà lose.

“Nobody thought we could pull it off in 1 minute,” Johnson said. “But we got some firepower.”

Yeah. It wears his uniform.

Masterpiece on the gridiron

Make no mistake. While the defense was crucial in this 31-30 squeaker, while Reggie Bush was big, and while small things would play a huge part (a Dallas holding penalty that stopped the clock in the final 80 seconds), the miracle-maker was Johnson, who showed the world there is talk and there is deed. Dez Bryant can talk (he did an awful lot of yelling on the sideline Sunday). But Calvin is action.

Playing against Johnson is like getting bashed by ballet. You almost want to applaud as he catches a ball over you. He caught passes of 21, 22, 26, 29, 54 and 87 yards – and there are eight others I haven’t mentioned, including a 2-yard touchdown strike.

Which was the masterpiece? That’s like going through the Louvre and saying, “I want that one.”

It might have been his first catch, a slant he broke loose and galloped for 87 yards. Or a fourth-quarter beauty, where he streaked down the middle and lifted into the air like an Olympic long jumper. Between two defenders he rose, arms extended, coming down with the ball between them for 54 yards as an invisible orchestra crescendoed with crashing cymbals. Or was it his final catch, a whipping thread he sucked in between two Cowboys, going 22 yards and crashing at the goal line, setting up Stafford’s sneak?

How do you choose? Johnson is the tank that comes over the hill, the Avatar bird that swoops down to save you. “The greatest,” said teammate Rob Sims. “Phenomenal,” added Willie Young.

How good was he? On a day when two balls left his hands and wound up going the other way – an interception and a fumble – Johnson still had the second-greatest receiving day in history, 329 yards.

And the Lions had their biggest win in a long time.

Something really to build on

Remember this was against the Cowboys – always a big deal. It avoided back-to-back home losses. It gave Detroit a 5-3 record at its bye week.

But more than that. It was an identity changer. You do something like Sunday, you can do other things on future Sundays. No one can yet say if this game saved the season. But we can say whatever good the Lions achieve this year, Sunday will have propelled them to it.

Detroit has lost too many of these in the past. This time the defense, the relentless offense and sheer will got them past a minus-four turnover deficit, something that virtually never happens in the NFL.

That, and a goal-line sneak that fooled everyone – including the Lions.

“I saw how far it was,” Stafford joked. “I felt like I could use my supreme vertical and get it in.”

His vertical and Johnson’s might be miles apart, but together they just took the Lions to a new height. Remember this victory. It was as much a game for the ages as a Sunday in October can be.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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