Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy, left, runs in the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter Sunday. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Miami Gardens, Fla.-- This is all new and strange and even a little exhilarating. That Lions team that spent years conjuring up inventive ways to lose? It suddenly keeps digging up crafty, gutsy ways to win.
I've double-checked the playoff picture, and sorry, the surging 5-10 Lions won't qualify, even if you use the BCS computers. But they're doing something intriguing here, winning three straight, winning on the road, winning with big offensive plays and big defensive plays. Oh, one more thing: They're whetting appetites.
You've only truly turned a corner if you don't look back, so caution is required. But the encouraging part, the part that will keep fans in warm anticipation, is how the Lions are doing it, in spite of injuries. They beat the Miami Dolphins 34-27 on Sunday with a 17-point explosion in the final 4:37, with contributions from most of their important building blocks, from Calvin Johnson to Jahvid Best to DeAndre Levy.
Backup quarterback Shaun Hill filled in admirably with a broken right finger in windy conditions. But of course, Matthew Stafford has to return healthy to even think about the next step. And yes, the next step is playoff contention and it must happen next season, or this late revival doesn't mean much.
"Three wins in a row, I might have seen that my first year, but I don't really remember," said Johnson, grinning through the pain of a sprained ankle. "We're putting things together. These things will carry over, man."
Johnson did see it in his 2007 rookie season, and a four-game winning streak is possible with Minnesota in the finale Sunday. The playmaking Johnson is one of the main reasons it just happened. He didn't finish the game because of the ankle, but he changed it with tough catches.
Dolphins bearing gifts
Only with our local lads can a 5-10 record be cause for excitement, but hey, after a 2-30 two-season run, I'm willing to go with it, for now. I recognize the Dolphins are a mess, and the Tony Sparano era in Miami could be over, not that you should care. The Dolphins coach is on the chopping block with Bill Cowher hovering, and quarterback Chad Henne might join Sparano after a miserable performance.
Henne kept offering gifts the day after Christmas, and the Lions kept accepting. The last one was an interception by Levy when the receiver fell down. Levy went on a 30-yard excursion, gliding around tacklers for the winning touchdown with 2:11 left.
The Lions are the team leaping on others' foibles, hanging in long enough to pull it out, held together by a sharp young coach, Jim Schwartz. A week ago in Tampa, the Buccaneers got conservative with a fourth-quarter lead and the Lions seized advantage. Same thing in this one. The Dolphins dawdled around with a 27-17 lead, then the Lions sprang a 53-yard Best catch and run, and suddenly it was a game.
Something has changed
And slowly, this is becoming a team worth monitoring, with legitimate pieces and growing resilience. In this one, the Lions' battered secondary finished with an anonymous foursome of Nathan Vasher, Tye Hill, Amari Spievey and C.C. Brown.
All game long, who made the big plays? Guys that are here for precisely that purpose, for now and the future. It'll be interesting to see what Best can do when his turf-toe injuries heal by next season, but his quick burst was huge.
So were the 74 yards by young tight end Brandon Pettigrew, becoming an offensive force. Levy is an impact second-year linebacker who's finally healthy. Rookie Ndamukong Suh picked up his ninth sack, a remarkable total that should earn him a Pro Bowl bid.
But the Lions have had talented pieces before. They've been injured before. They've been challenged before. What has changed now, that they can win with backup quarterbacks Hill and Drew Stanton?
"There's a toughness that's built from playing in close games," Schwartz said. "If you look at all our losses, I don't know if there was a common vein. We have learned from those, and not gotten beat the same way twice."
The Lions have cut down on penalties. They also didn't turn the ball over during their two-victory journey through Florida. Simple enough, right? In some ways, it is.
Another offseason talent infusion is needed, no doubt. And let's not pretend a winning streak at the end of one season impacts the next. But let's not overlook how fiercely the Lions are still scrapping, and what's possible with Stafford.
"It looks like a household change, doesn't it?" center Dominic Raiola said. "It's awesome. We have playmakers now, and I think we're growing up. We're kind of figuring out a way to win."What a way indeed, when another apparent defeat turned into another stirring victory. Illusions can happen late in a season, but some of this has to be real. You never really know if a team has turned a significant corner, but at least the Lions aren't heading around the same old block these days.
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