Lions kicker Dave Rayner, center, is mobbed by teammates including Calvin Johnson after connecting for the winning field goal in overtime on Sunday. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Tampa, Fla. -- The moment was long overdue, and stirring when it finally arrived. The Lions pounded again and again, and after three years and so many painful games, they finally went into someone else's stadium and rendered it sweetly silent.
Ah, but it didn't stay quiet for long. The Lions had downplayed what it meant to lug around an NFL-record 26-game road losing streak and suffer all the derision. But amid the celebratory smiles and smokin' words following their 23-20 overtime victory against Tampa Bay, the emotions were clear, and occasionally loud.
"We're not gonna be punks anymore, I'm telling you right now," center Dominic Raiola said, his voice rising. "You saw the (game). You saw how violent it was. Any questions? Not today."
If you questioned whether the 4-10 Lions were making progress, this was much-needed evidence they are. They used all they had to beat an opponent that came in at 8-5 and was scrapping to stay in the playoff race.
This was an assortment of fed-up, underfed Lions playing with numerous backups, from the quarterback, Drew Stanton, to the kicker, Dave Rayner, two former Spartans who showed tremendous poise. The Lions needed everybody to play their part, right down to the tippy toes of the great Calvin Johnson. His leaping third-down catch set up Rayner's winning 34-yard field goal, and set off a team that finally backed up words with actions.
Clutch when it counts
At times, it was hard to differentiate between the Bucs and the Lions, despite their records. And in the end, it was the Lions who made the clutch plays, who rallied when it appeared lost, and who pounded away with their offensive and defensive lines. Another backup, Maurice Morris, was terrific, running for 109 yards behind a fired-up offensive line.
This absolutely was the step the Lions had to take sooner or later under coach Jim Schwartz, and it's just a step, of course. They'd come close, losing seven games by eight points or less, and this one seemed destined to slip away, too. The Bucs used their power runner, LeGarrette Blount, to maneuver for a 26-yard field goal by Connor Barth with 1:39 left for a 20-17 lead.
But Stanton directed the Lions right back, and Rayner's 28-yard field goal kick at the horn sent the game to overtime. Raiola made the coin-flip call -- "heads" -- and the Lions scored on the first drive of overtime, ending the NFL's most-dubious current streak.
"We had a killer instinct on offense," said Johnson, who had 10 catches for 152 yards. "We had a totally different attitude out there and it just felt great. Actually, honestly, I don't even know what the streak was, but it's definitely good to bury it. We buried two demons in the last two weeks, so it's big."
That's right, the Lions beat division foe Green Bay last week, which means their notable mark right now is a two-game winning streak, their first in three years.
The moment arrives
They're not suddenly cocky, trust me. As near as I could tell, there were no champagne corks littering the locker room floor. But think about how badly this team has been battered, without its top two quarterbacks for three weeks, and look at how they won, behind an offensive line that punished the Bucs' defense.
"We knew this was coming," offensive guard Rob Sims said. "I'm not saying we'll be undefeated the rest of our lives, but we knew this was the stepping-stone to get where we want to go. We're not all the way there, but we're starting to peek around the corner."
Give Stanton credit for displaying hard-to-define winning tendencies. Nothing fancy, but his numbers -- 23-for-37 for 252 yards and zero interceptions -- reflect a guy seizing an opportunity, and a team rallying behind him.
"Stanton's my dude and he's a warrior," Johnson said. "He's a football player first, before he's a quarterback."
That's a compliment, and it fits. Schwartz has tried to build a team on toughness, but it hasn't been easy. Morris is another no-flash type who pounds straight ahead. And the offensive line is developing cohesiveness, and an angry snarl.
Stanton wasn't sacked, while Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman was sacked three times. And it was a seemingly innocent comment in Saturday's Tampa Tribune from Bucs coach Raheem Morris that really lit Raiola.
With the Bucs suffering injuries on their defensive line, they had to shuffle players around. Asked about it, Raheem Morris said, "It will all depend on what (the Lions) do and what I want to do and how I want to force my will on our opponent that day."
Schwartz read the quote to the team, and the offensive linemen interpreted the "force my will" part as a knock on them. Uh, that's debatable, but that's OK. The Lions should be ticked off by perceptions -- and they should play like they did Sunday to change them.
"If you look at his quotes, they might not have been personal, but I took it as a personal shot," Raiola said. "We're not punks anymore. We knew we were better than this team. We knew what we had to do to get this monkey off our back. It was personal, it was disrespect. Just tired of it, just done with it."
The Lions can't truly be done with it until they win consistently, until a road victory isn't considered momentous. But when you've lost for years and are seeking signs, this was a telling one. In the waning moments of a road game against a decent team, the Lions didn't buckle. They made big passes, big catches and big kicks.
It's just a modest two-game winning streak, but this said something that had to be said. More important, it showed something that needed to be shown.
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