Detroit — They insisted things were different, that history wasn't their burden, that something unusual might be unfolding. Then, just in case some weren't paying attention, the Lions went out and pulled off a rare feat.
They turned an ugly stumble into a stunning, stirring triumph. Down 13 with five minutes to go, they showed all the poise and made all the plays against one of the NFL's best quarterbacks. We won't affix the stamp of absolute legitimacy just yet, because that hasn't worked before. But one thing is safe to say — the Lions are winning in ways they almost never have.
It's not about the 5-2 record, which they've done before. It's about the plan and the passion, all in evidence in the closing minutes of their 24-23 victory Sunday over the Saints. The Lions won again without Calvin Johnson, without much of a running game, without an overly effective Matthew Stafford. The offense has to be better, but on the biggest throw, Stafford fired a third-down strike to Corey Fuller for a 5-yard touchdown with 1:48 left.
The Lions' top-rated defense had breakdowns too, but not when it mattered, stuffing Drew Brees on the final two drives. If there's a real difference — and I think there is — it's reflected in the steady balance, from the unflappable coach, Jim Caldwell, to the quarterback who no longer is required to win games just by heaving the ball to Calvin.
Tate a golden addition
Now they have a superb second receiver in Golden Tate and all sorts of playmakers on a ferocious defense. This game appeared lost after Stafford's second interception — which bounced off the hands of reserve tight end Jordan Thompson — led to a New Orleans field goal and a 23-10 lead. But shortly after some in the Ford Field crowd began heading toward the exits, Stafford struck with a 73-yard touchdown pass to Tate, which actually was an 8-yard pass followed by a 65-yard run.
Tate is the sparkplug brought over from the Super Bowl champion Seahawks to provide an edge, even a swagger. He had 10 catches for 154 yards, and when the offense looked like it would never get going, he got it going.
"I think this type of win was huge for this organization, not just the players and coaches, but everyone, even the media, even our fans," Tate said, offering a wry smile. "I will say this — we really do not appreciate the fans leaving after that interception. We need you guys out there, but thanks for the ones that did stay. Did we play perfect? Not at all. We found a way to win."
There weren't needless boasts or pleas for respect after beating the Saints, who are 2-4 despite their dynamic offense. I don't know if the Lions' defense will remain No. 1 statistically — the Saints did pile up 408 yards — but when it harasses Brees into incompletions on seven of his final nine attempts, it's done something special.
Safeties Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo also are cagey veterans from somewhere else, unburdened by the Lions' past. They're leaders on the defense, and it was Quin's interception with 3:10 left that changed everything.
If there were questions about the defense's legitimacy, this was one decent answer.
"People want to see that our defense is exactly what we say we are, and we did that," Ihedigbo said. "We believe we're a special group, and we're trying to do something special. Just stay tuned, that's all I can say."
Staying tuned and staying focused are always important, and always the challenge for the Lions. Now they head to London to face the Falcons, another wobbly opponent they should handle.
A new look
Mention past collapses, like staggering from a 6-3 start to a 7-9 finish last season, and you get dismissive waves. This team at least is built differently, especially on defense, with a head coach who's older and calmer and carries Super Bowl experience, and clearly commands respect.
The Lions already have won two games on the road, another rarity. They've also blown a home game to Buffalo, just to keep everything in perspective. But the SOL debate — Same Old Lions — could be turned into an SNL skit — Same New Lions — if they keep this up.
Stafford is in his sixth season and the Lions finally recognized they were asking too much of a quarterback who can be good (and needs to be better), but is smart enough to adjust. That means fewer reckless throws, and although he tossed two interceptions, the second wasn't his fault. Stafford still looks unsure in the new offense and obviously misses Johnson, but if he has to throw more to Tate and Fuller, or hand the ball to Joique Bell, he's fine with it.
On the winning possession, Stafford completed only one pass, although his fourth-down incompletion drew a pass-interference penalty — a good call on a dumb play by the Saints' Rafael Bush. That was a break, and then Stafford made his own, firing a laser to Fuller.
Brees didn't have a shot after that against the Lions' withering pressure. By the end, the noise in Ford Field was incredible, throaty and hopeful and seemingly different. So far, Caldwell's team plays like he speaks, with baritone strength and clenched-teeth determination.
"We got a coach who has our backs and we have his," cornerback Rashean Mathis said. "A lot of young guys don't really know what it is, but this is real. We have something rare here in a head coach, in our organization, as a team. The sky's the limit."
The Lions have plenty of areas to improve, and we'll learn more about physical limits soon enough. But with finishes like this, the mental barriers appear to be shrinking.
Down, but not out
The Lions trailed the Saints, 23-10, with just over five minutes left in the game, but scored twice in the final four minutes — and kept the Saints off the board — to erase the deficit. Five key plays in the deciding drives:
■ On third-and-10 after the Saints scored, Corey Fuller caught a 21-yard pass from Stafford to keep the drive alive.
■ Golden Tate got free on a short pass play and turned it into a 73-yard touchdown, evading tacklers and speeding past the last defender, to make it 23-17 with 3:38 left.
■ On the ensuing drive, Saints QB Drew Brees tried to thread a pass but safety Glover Quin intercepted it and returned it to the Saints' 14 with 2:57 left.
■ On fourth-and-five, Matthew Stafford tried to hit Reggie Bush on a short pass play, but a defensive pass-interference penalty gave the Lions a new set of downs.
■ Fuller caught his first career touchdown, on a 5-yard pass from Stafford, in the back of the end zone. Matt Prater's extra point gave the Lions their first lead of the game with 1:48 left.