by | Sep 10, 2014 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

Matthew Stafford took off running. In the past, this made you worry. In the past, this was a last resort – and how much can you expect from a last resort?

But this is not the past. And apparently, Stafford spent the summer on “Dancing with the Stars.” His footwork had never been so sure and determined, and on this third-down play near the end of the third quarter, he started back behind the Giants’ 10, sprinted all the way to the 2, cut inside, took a smash from linebacker Jon Beason, but never went down, just crossed into the end zone, turned to his sideline, and tossed the ball over his shoulder backward, as if to say, “Yeah, I can move, that’s right, what about it?”

Off to the races. The Lions took the new car out of the garage Monday night, and revved the engines inside the eardrums of the New York Giants.

Then they ran over them. Then they backed up over them. Then they ran over them again.

And then they stalled.

And then they revved it up again.

“We played well,” Stafford told ESPN after the 35-14 season-opening victory. “Obviously, there’s still room for improvement.”

Right. It was not a perfect game. But it was a perfect start and the end of a perfectly beautiful Detroit sports day, in which one downtown stadium saw the Tigers take down the Royals, moving to within one game of first place, while the stadium next door saw the Lions win their opener, and share a first place of their own.

Off to the races.

Full speed ahead

Of course, if you bottled the first 10 minutes at Ford Field, you could have sold out the next 100 seasons. The Lions were like a “Transformers” movie. All that was missing was the sound effects.

A 67-yard bomb from Stafford to Calvin Johnson ended the opening drive in a touchdown. The Giants gained exactly one yard in three plays against the Detroit defense, and then Stafford slammed the gas pedal again, finishing a long drive with a 16-yard touchdown strike to Johnson.

Two drives. Two touchdowns. Johnson with nearly 100 yards. Stafford with nearly 150.

Lions up, 14-0.

Don’t quote me, but I believe some fans went on their iPhones to check airline tickets for Arizona.

Ah, but rocket fuel burns fast. Soon enough, the Lions were sputtering, back to searching for a running game, struggling with pass defense, and battling, at times, their toughest enemy, themselves.

Eight penalties in the first half. A roughing the kicker that gave New York new life. A pass interference call that gave the Giants the ball on the Lions’ 1. A costly face mask. And a missed field goal.

Fortunately, they were playing New York, a flawed team itself. The Giants are in the middle of a major offensive facelift, and the Lions caught them on the operating table. Eli Manning was little more than another quarterback, and the Detroit defense intercepted him twice, ending the curse of the Manning brothers, who, between them, had never lost to the Lions.

Can’t say for more

Still, the quarterback story was not their guy, but Detroit’s guy, Stafford, with his old accuracy and his new dexterity. There is word that Stafford worked hard on his conditioning this off-season, and under new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who made his name with the Saints, he looked more elusive than ever. (Can anyone say Drew Brees?) He side-stepped a tackle on the first big bomb, and smartly dodged heavy rushes, taking just one sack, and never forcing a truly bad pass all night.

“Calvin did a great job of finding some open grass,” Stafford told ESPN, adding “81 is 81. He’s gonna do that for us all year.”

Indeed, Johnson deserved the boldest headlines (164 yards on 7 catches). Golden Tate, the new addition at receiver, had nearly 100 yards himself, and looks like a perfect compliment. Rookie tight end Eric Ebron, the No.1 pick, didn’t do much.

But, hey, it’s the first week.

Which is what you always have to tell yourself. The defense clearly has secondary issues. But if you’re looking for a small thing to inspire hope, consider how many plays the Lions converted on third or long yardage. I charted the notable ones: second-and-10 (gained 24 yards), third-and-9 (67 yards, TD), second-and-18 (24 yards), third-and-13 (16 yards, TD), third-and-4 (24 yards), third-and-11 (44 yards), second-and-13 (26 yards)

What does it mean? That the offense flipped the odds. That it took what was once dire straits and made them a plus. That’s new. That’s exciting.

We can’t get crazy. That’s crazy. Most experts expected the Lions to handle the transitioning Giants. Next week in Carolina (if Cam Newton indeed plays) will be a different kind of test.

But you take them as them come, seasons, games, quarters and plays. Detroit, under new coach Jim Caldwell, did what it had to do, leaving behind the sweet smell of burnt rubber, and some nice tire tracks in the heart of the Motor City.


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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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