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The Lions started slow, finished with a flurry and head to New York 1-0 on the season.

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Detroit — As they headed to the elevator inside Ford Field late Sunday afternoon — a couple of rookies beaming after a triumphant NFL debut — Kenny Golladay pointed to the souvenir Jarrad Davis was cradling in his left arm. It was the football from Davis’ first career fumble recovery, a critical turnover that helped turned the tide in the Lions’ 35-23 roller-coaster win over the Arizona Cardinals.

“I should’ve scored, too,” Davis said.

Golladay was empty-handed, though, which didn’t seem right. Not after his own impressive performance Sunday, which was punctuated by a pair of highlight-reel touchdown catches in the fourth quarter as the Lions rallied for another improbable victory.

It wasn’t that he’d misplaced his memento, really. Golladay, the Lions’ third-round pick out of Northern Illinois, had simply chucked it in the air celebrating his first score, a 10-yard grab on a fade route that put Detroit ahead for good. And he wasn’t sure if anyone had managed to retrieve it, though he’d later learn they had.

“I forgot all about it,” he laughed. “I was just so excited.”

Understandably so. And for Golladay, it wasn’t simply the moment. It was everything that led up to it, as he caught just two of the first handful of passes thrown his way Sunday and also committed a false-start penalty — on the first play of the second quarter after a TV timeout.

“Look, I had a rough first half,” he said. “But you can’t beat yourself up about plays. It’s a long game, you know?”

Still, he admits, “At that point, I needed it. I felt like I needed to make a play.”

And that he finally did was no surprise to his teammates.

They’d seen what we all saw in a 6-foot-4 receiver with underrated deep speed and terrific hands catching the ball away from body, not to mention a guy who caught a pair of touchdown passes in last month’s preseason opener at Indianapolis. But they’d also seen the quiet, humble rookie who listened while he worked.

“I think Kenny already is his own worst critic, and that’s how you gotta be in this league,” said Golden Tate, who proved invaluable, as usual, hauling in a game-high 10 catches for 107 yards Sunday, even after injuring his left hand early in the third quarter. “But Kenny did what he’s been doing all camp, what you guys have all been talking about.

“He came out and, once he got going, he played phenomenal. He’s a tough, smart, very talented guy and he helped us, big-time.”

Indeed, as big as his first touchdown catch was, his second was even more dramatic. Leading 21-17 midway through the fourth quarter, the Lions crossed midfield thanks to a pair of runs from Ameer Abdullah and another chain-moving reception by Tate. Then on second-and-9 from the Arizona 45, coordinator Jim Bob Cooter called for a play-action pass — “We just wanted to end it,” Stafford said — and after a couple crow-hops in the pocket, the Lions’ quarterback let one fly.

One step and gone

Golladay had a step on cornerback Justin Bethel, and after some hand-fighting down the field, he turned and saw the play was his to make.

“Man, that’s a receiver’s dream, he said. “And I’m sure it’s a quarterback’s dream when you have a guy you can trust. Me and him are still trying to build that trust. ... But Matt just gave me a shot, you know? And I let my skills do the rest, pretty much. Left my feet, used all hands and made a nice catch.”

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That’s a bit of an understatement, of course. That diving grab — “Even if you overthrow him, he can still get there,” Bethel noted — was more than a nice catch. It was also the ballgame, just as Stafford had hoped.

“He’s developing,” Stafford said. “Did he do everything right today? No. But did he make some big-time catches? Absolutely.”

“On the first touchdown, it was a check at the line of scrimmage and sometimes as a rookie out there, you don’t know if he’s gonna get it. But he got it and made the great catch. And then on the second one, man, what a great catch.”

Without either of them, Tate added, “I don’t know how this game goes.”

How it went, though, certainly bodes well for the Lions, who got an impressive effort from their defense and a huge win to start the season.

Same goes for Golladay, one of eight rookies in uniform for Detroit. He finished the day with four catches for 69 yards. But he also finished it with two more touchdown catches than Tate had in his entire rookie season.

The last Lions rookie receiver to catch a touchdown pass in a season opener was Calvin Johnson in 2007. The last to haul in two of them in an opener was Charles Rogers in 2003. And in an ironic twist, that same game in ’03 — against the Arizona Cardinals, no less — also featured another rookie wideout with a pair of touchdown catches. That was Anquan Boldin, the recently-retired veteran who played such a vital role in the Lions’ offense last season and the player Golladay is now being asked to replace as the Lions’ No. 3 receiver.

Golladay was oblivious to all of that in the locker room Sunday. But he was aware of the consequences of a performance like this. Tate made sure of that.

“That’s a great way to come into this league,” he said, turning toward the rookie and smiling. “But he set a standard. So he better bring that every week.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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