PHILADELPHIA – Now and then, when there’s a conflict, my boss asks me where I think I should go for the big story. On Sunday, the choice was between 1) Game 2 of the Tigers-Yankees playoff series or 2) the Lions game against the Eagles. I chose the Lions for one simple reason: No matter what happened between the Tigers and Yankees, Detroit’s baseball hopes wouldn’t be over today; but if the Lions blew this game, their football hopes would be.
Well. They came close…
And then, they sprouted wings. They gulped spinach. They turned into the Hulk. Their muscles ripped their shirts open. They grew 10 feet tall.
I don’t know if they got angry, frustrated, scared, or if someone showed them the tape of how they’d been playing to that point.
All I know is it’s no exaggeration to say a minute or so into the fourth quarter, the Lions became something else entirely, they shed their skin, they grew rocket boosters. From that point forward, they scored 20 points, amassed 266 yards of offense, had two sacks, one interception, and won the game – and a lot more than that.
“We needed it bad,” said Jason Hanson, who ended it, in overtime, with his fourth field goal of the day, 26-23. “We needed it to get our season on track at all.”
Remember, these Lions were not supposed to be in turnaround. They were pegged as a playoff favorite, an NFC force, dominant offense, a dangerous defensive line.
Yet they came into Sunday with a 1-3 record, and they started playing as if the bye week meant “rust’ instead of “rest.”
It was far worse than awful
Consider where the Lions were after three quarters of Sunday afternoon’s game. Losing 13-6. No touchdowns. One sack. No third-down conversions. Really. Not one. They did have 12 penalties for 102 yards, which was more yards than they had passing or rushing.
The game was a laid egg, spilled milk, an embarrassing cigarette stain on the couch. “Flat” would be a good word for it, except flat is too exciting.
And then, something changed. “Guys just willed themselves to make plays,” Matthew Stafford said.
He was one of them. The easygoing quarterback, who seems to caffeinate in the final minutes, went from a 35% completion rate in the first three quarters to a 60% clip the rest of the way. He ran for a touchdown. He threaded a beautiful 17-yard pass to a backpedaling Nate Burleson for another. He kept finding guys over the middle, and he scrambled and improvised a huge 57-yard gain to tight end Tony Scheffler.
“Were you thinking your season might be on the line?” he was asked afterward.
“I don’t think our mind was on that big picture,” he said. “Our mind was on the next play, and that’s what it has to be…. If you’re thinking about what’s gonna happen if we lose or what’s gonna happen if we win, you’re not thinking about the right stuff.”
Which is why he’s playing, and the rest of us – thinking exactly that stuff – are watching.
Doing what they needed to do
There were a barrel-full of huge plays worth noting in that fourth quarter and overtime: big sacks by the defense, a ballet catch on the sidelines by Calvin Johnson, so deft the refs initially refused to believe he could be in bounds. (The call was reversed.)
But it wasn’t one play. It was all of them. It was whatever collective spirit kicked in as the sun lost its afternoon heat.
“I think it was a big step for us as a team,” coach Jim Schwartz said. And while he credited the Philly defense, and downplayed the largesse of any one victory, his body language at the end of the game betrayed him. When Hanson hit that field goal, a 45-yarder, Schwartz threw his fist through the air so hard I think he knocked out a few cloud particles. Stafford grabbed him in a headlock and said, “Way to keep fighting.”
And that is what we must say to these Lions today. It wasn’t pretty. It’s a skittish way to live in the NFL. But way to keep fighting. If a good game blown at the end turns Detroit into The Mourning City, then a bad game saved at the end has to brighten our spirits. They muscled up. They donned a cape. All that was missing was the phone booth.
“We had to have this one,” Hanson admitted. “To go 1-4 would be a huge mountain to overcome.”
Instead it’s Monday, the Lions are still in play, and football dreams remain intact. So perhaps it was, as it turned out, the big story of the Detroit sports day.
And now…back to baseball.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.