September 23, 2013 at 5:16 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Victory may finally signal Lions are ready to make capital gains

Landover, Md. -- No wavering, not this time, not this place. The Lions had driven too far to put the outcome in the hands of cruel fate. Instead, they put the ball in the hands of their leader, who kept putting the ball where it needed to go.

This was Matthew Staffordís game, no matter how desperately the Redskins wanted to make it Robert Griffin IIIís game. This was exactly what the Lions had to do, for credibilityís sake. They came to a city where they were 0-for-forever and beat a wounded team the way they should.

The Lionsí 27-20 victory over the Redskins Sunday was a vivid reminder of a formula that should be stamped to the locker room wall: If the other team lets Stafford and Calvin Johnson do their thing, then do it.

The Lions (2-1) didnít let up, even after starting with a letdown, a Stafford interception returned 17 yards by DeAngelo Hall for an early touchdown. That could sap the resolve of any quarterback but the Lions canít forget who they are, or at least who they aspire to be. And give Jim Schwartz credit here, too. After an ugly loss at Arizona and losing Reggie Bush for this game with a knee injury, the Lions didnít seek any kind of safety shell.

They were aggressive, but mostly smart aggressive, a necessary step in Staffordís evolution. His clinching 11-yard touchdown pass to Johnson with 3:56 left came two plays after a successful fourth-and-inches quarterback sneak. Schwartz went for it without hesitation, and Stafford wedged nicely to the left of center Dominic Raiola and got an extra push from running back Joique Bell. It was the perfect time to gamble, trying to turn a three-point lead into a 10-point lead instead of settling for a field goal.

On the touchdown, the Redskins blanketed Johnson but he stuck his arms through three defenders and snatched the pass that broke an infamous streak.

ďFrankly, (the Redskins) had a great call on, we just did a good job of making a play,Ē said Stafford, 25-for-42 for 385 yards. ďCalvin did a great job of winning. Iím just glad he didnít go down at the 1 and got in.Ē

Self-realization

Stafford was whipping the ball everywhere all game. Oddly, maybe the Lions had to come to the franchiseís historic den of doom to discover something. Without Bush in the second half last week, the offense collapsed and the debate rose: Could Stafford and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan turn this attack into something more than Johnson and hope?

The answer came against a horrid Washington defense that blitzed constantly and left receivers single-covered. Thatís why it was so important for Stafford to stamp control and spread the action. Johnson caught seven passes for 115 yards, while Nate Burleson was excellent again with six receptions for 116 yards. Six other players caught passes, including a 5-yard TD by rookie tight end Joseph Fauria. And donít overlook the continued emergence of Bell, who also caught four passes for 69 yards.

ďIt was great to see the ball flying around, seeing all my other receivers getting a piece of the action,Ē Johnson said. ďItís big for our camaraderie, brings us together, gives us confidence that we can go on the road and win like we did two years ago.Ē

Two years ago, the Lions won tight games on the road and made the playoffs. I donít know if that mentality is back, but itís not as far away as it seemed a week ago.

ď(Stafford) was outstanding,Ē Schwartz said. ďItís tough to win on the road, with a weapon like Reggie not available, but Scott Linehan and Matt Stafford didnít miss a beat. Iím as proud as I can be of our team. But we didnít carry a banner here that said, remember weíve never won in Washington. We donít dwell on the past.Ē

Thatís good, because in the NFL youíre actually not constrained by your past. The Lions were 0-21 in Washington but this was a winnable game and they knew it. In fact, Johnson helped them in two major ways. First, of course, was with his standard brilliance, including an incredible 18-yard sideline grab that was a combination of strong hands and ballet tippy-toes.

Different process

The other way was with the unofficial Calvin Johnson rule, no longer just applied to Calvin Johnson. Aldrick Robinson appeared to score on a 57-yard pass that wouldíve given the Redskins a 24-20 lead, but replays showed he didnít complete the process and the ball wobbled as he hit the ground. The touchdown was overturned and the Lionsí fortunes turned with them.

It helped that the defensive line hammered Griffin, led by Ndamukong Suh, Willie Young and rookie Ziggy Ansah, who collected two sacks. It also helped that the Redskins committed the key mistakes, including Griffinís fumble at the Lions 25 in the fourth quarter.

The Lions turned the ball over only once and Stafford was sacked only once. Thatís especially impressive because the Redskinsí defense gambles and doesnít double- and triple-team Johnson nearly as much as other teams do. And when it was time to make a play, Schwartz and Linehan had confidence in Stafford, who had confidence in pretty much all his receivers.

ďHeís not a kid anymore,Ē Burleson said of Stafford. ďThatís what leaders do, what one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL does. I love it. Thatís big-time.Ē

Big-time plays in an all-time, tough-time environment. The Lions have done some predictable things over the years but this was a nice unpredictable twist, an important step for Stafford. He and the Lions took this game, and as one trend ends, maybe a different one can start.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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Calvin Johnson's 11-yard touchdown catch with 3:56 left in Sunday's victory exemplified the high level of precision at which Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and his No. 1 pass receiver can operate. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News