October 28, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Lions show playoff-caliber poise in stunning comeback over Cowboys

Detroit — Incredibly, after all the yards and plays and misplays, it ended with deception, with a play you almost never see, in a drive you’d never expect. The Lions rolled up and down the field all game, pausing just long enough to turn the ball over. Somehow, they were veering toward pretender status — right up until Matthew Stafford made one pretend play and an amazing batch of real ones.

No fooling, but the Lions won a game that good teams win, and did it in all-time stunning fashion. The incomparable Calvin Johnson got them to the brink with a spectacular performance, and Stafford took them the final few inches.

About half the crowd of 64,379 at Ford Field had departed by the time the Lions pulled out a 31-30 victory over the Cowboys on Sunday, but they’ll probably talk about it forever. It was Johnson’s finest hour, capped by Stafford’s finest moment, when he faked a clock-killing spike and dove for a 1-yard touchdown with 12 seconds left.

The Lions seemingly had lost the game about eight different times, then staged a comeback that might have saved their season. If this was a referendum on their playoff status, and on Stafford’s star capability, consider it passed. It took several slings of the arm and one sleight of hand, but Stafford stamped a mark of authenticity.

“I looked down and we were that far,” Stafford said, indicating less than a yard from the end zone. “Shoot, I’m going to go get that. I was just making a play, man, just trying to help my team win. Sure am glad I got across.”

He smiled and laughed, and if the Lions’ fifth-year quarterback ever looked more relieved, I can’t remember when. This game was a perfect encapsulation of why the Lions can be half-maddening and half-fascinating. They desperately needed a win, and now they hit their bye week with a 5-3 record and legitimate playoff possibilities.

The numbers were staggering. Johnson had 329 yards receiving, second-highest in NFL history. Stafford completed 33 of 48 for 488 yards, outdueling famed counterpart Tony Romo, as the Lions posted a gigantic edge in total yards (623-268).

This was a game the Lions couldn’t lose, not with how easily they were moving the ball and how tough their defense was playing. But Stafford threw two interceptions, Johnson and Reggie Bush lost fumbles, and with barely a minute left, they were staring at a 30-24 deficit, 80 yards of open turf and no timeouts.

Stafford threw a 17-yard pass to Johnson, then a 40-yard strike to Kris Durham. That put the Lions at the Cowboys’ 23 with 33 seconds left, and suddenly something was possible. On the next play, Stafford lofted the ball to Johnson, who caught it in stride and bulled to the 1. The clock was running — 16, 15, 14 — and stopping it with a quick spike is what a quarterback does 99 percent of the time.

Stafford ran to the line, motioning wildly with his arm, calling for the spike. Everyone on the field, including his teammates, thought he’d heave the ball into the ground. But he saw an opening, the Cowboys weren’t set, and he went for it. Up Stafford went, poking the ball over the goal line, and he never even was knocked to the ground. He raced into the end zone in celebration and finally spiked the ball, not to stop the clock, but essentially to start the season.

His teammates called him crazy. His coach, Jim Schwartz, slyly talked about strategy. The Lions had just gone 80 yards in 50 seconds, and the only guy on the field who knew what was happening on the final play was Stafford.

“I kind of squatted and tried to protect him, and then I saw people scrambling and, man, that (stuff) was awesome,” center Dominic Raiola said. “He was the only one that knew. I had no idea. Even when he scored, I had no idea. That’s what I love about the guy — his toughness, his moxie.”

Long after the game, Raiola, Stafford and others were still trying to recount how a game could go so wrong, then end so right. The Lions needed all sorts of help just to get that final chance. The Cowboys could’ve drained most of the time but a holding penalty stopped the clock. They settled for a field goal and a 30-24 lead with 1:02 remaining, and the Lions had another chance.

You give Stafford and Johnson another chance, you deserve to lose. After all, the Lions had given tons of chances to the Cowboys — four turnovers to their zero — and Johnson’s record-setting effort was in danger of being squandered.

“Any time you got a minute, and you got our offense, we like the odds that we can go put that ball in the end zone,” Schwartz said. “I can’t imagine many people doing that other than Matt Stafford.”

The Lions showed faith with uncommon aggressiveness from the start. After Johnson raced 87 yards with a reception in the first quarter, they faced fourth down at the 2. That’s where a team needs to know its strength and use it, and Schwartz did. Stafford’s pass to Johnson gave the Lions a 7-0 lead, before everything started spinning madly.

With all the turnovers, the Lions trailed 27-17 with less than four minutes left. Bush scored from the 1 to tighten it up, but when the Lions failed on fourth down on their next possession, it looked like it was over, a devastating outcome they’d suffered many times before. Except this time, it wasn’t over.

“I’ve been part of some comeback wins before, and that stacks up in the top three,” Bush said. “(Stafford) has the heart of a lion. To keep battling through two interceptions, even when the stadium is clearing out and basically every odd is against us. I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life. And Calvin? He’s the greatest receiver in the history of the National Football League.”

It always starts with Johnson, but if it’s to end well, it’ll be led by Stafford. In a magical moment of deception, he pulled off something real, as real as we’ve seen in a long time.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Punter Sam Martin, left, and running back Reggie Bush revel in the 31-30 win over the Cowboys. The Lions persevered despite four turnovers. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News