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

The Lions’ 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) didn’t 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 can’t 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 didn’t seek any kind of safety shell.

They were aggressive, but mostly smart aggressive, a necessary step in Stafford’s 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.

“Frankly, (the Redskins) had a great call on, we just did a good job of making a play,” said Stafford, 25-for-42 for 385 yards. “Calvin did a great job of winning. I’m just glad he didn’t go down at the 1 and got in.”

Self-realization

Stafford was whipping the ball everywhere all game. Oddly, maybe the Lions had to come to the franchise’s 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. That’s 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 don’t overlook the continued emergence of Bell, who also caught four passes for 69 yards.

“It was great to see the ball flying around, seeing all my other receivers getting a piece of the action,” Johnson said. “It’s 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.”

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

“(Stafford) was outstanding,” Schwartz said. “It’s tough to win on the road, with a weapon like Reggie not available, but Scott Linehan and Matt Stafford didn’t miss a beat. I’m as proud as I can be of our team. But we didn’t carry a banner here that said, remember we’ve never won in Washington. We don’t dwell on the past.”

That’s good, because in the NFL you’re 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 would’ve given the Redskins a 24-20 lead, but replays showed he didn’t complete the process and the ball wobbled as he hit the ground. The touchdown was overturned and the Lions’ 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 Griffin’s fumble at the Lions 25 in the fourth quarter.

The Lions turned the ball over only once and Stafford was sacked only once. That’s especially impressive because the Redskins’ defense gambles and doesn’t 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.

“He’s not a kid anymore,” Burleson said of Stafford. “That’s what leaders do, what one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL does. I love it. That’s big-time.”

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