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Green Bay, Wis. — They had it and lost it, had it and lost it. And then finally, mercifully, they had it for real, the most-improbable prize in a season of gloom.

The Lions did something they almost never do, and did it in a way that pushed the bounds of believable drama. They beat the Packers on the road for the first time in 24 years, and did it despite botching routine plays in the closing minutes, despite staring down one of the most-feared quarterbacks in the league.

Nobody will forget this one for a while, and not just because it snapped one of the franchise's ugliest historic markers. The Lions beat the Packers 18-16 despite two missed extra points by Matt Prater and a last-minute onside kick that bounced off Calvin Johnson's hands. The Lions led much of the way but it was slipping away, until a game-saving play by an unknown cornerback named Crezdon Butler, who was sitting on his couch in Atlanta last week, looking for work.

This was feel-good therapy for the Lions (2-7) that doesn't change much in the grand scheme. But the point of this whole exercise is to compete to the end, despite criticism and front-office upheaval, and that's what they did. Afterward, Jim Caldwell spoke in muted tones, after chatting with owner Martha Ford and members of the Ford family.

In the locker room, there were smiles but no over-the-top giddiness, and little discussion of the 24-year streak, longest in the NFL. There was relief and resolve after an admirable display of professionalism. The Packers (6-3) and Aaron Rodgers were struggling too, and now have lost three straight, but this was supposed to be their annual get-well weekend.

Uncertainty reigns

It looked like they might pull it out, until the Lions' winning 80-yard drive. Matthew Stafford converted two clutch third downs before firing a 4-yard strike to Lance Moore with 1:57 left, sparking a celebration momentarily derailed by Prater's second missed extra-point that kept the score 18-10.

"It hasn't been the start we wanted, no question, but these guys are a resilient bunch and our coach is the same way," Stafford said. "He's a guy that galvanizes us, brings us together. It's not easy being 1-7, but we knew we had an opportunity to come out here and play, and I bet nobody gave us a chance. But that's the way we like it."

That's the way they'll have it the rest of the season, with all sorts of futures still to be determined. But there wasn't anyone more uncertain than Butler, who was cut by the Lions after training camp and cut by the Seahawks a few weeks ago. Lions interim GM Sheldon White said Butler had stayed in touch and was hungry to return, so he called him Thursday after Rashean Mathis went on injured reserve. Butler worked out Friday and signed Saturday, in time to barely make the flight to Green Bay.

When injuries mounted Sunday, Butler was given a simple order after the Packers cut the deficit to 18-16 with 32 seconds left. Uh, could you go in and stop Rodgers' two-point attempt and prevent what could be one of the most-crushing defeats for a franchise that has endured many?

"Your heart's beating fast, you know they're coming at you after you've been sitting four hours on the sideline," said Butler, a sixth-year pro from Clemson. "It was an amazing feeling. It felt like a Super Bowl. You don't want to call it that, but it was just a sigh of relief."

When Butler knocked the ball away from Davante Adams on the two-point attempt, the Lions felt incredible relief. Well, until the Packers recovered the onside kick, drove to the 34 and Mason Crosby botched a 52-yard field-goal attempt at the final horn.

The Lions earned this victory, no matter how hard they tried to give it back. They earned a moment of joy amid such tumult, with GM Martin Mayhew, team president Tom Lewand and three assistant coaches fired in the past three weeks.

Just desserts

Stafford and the much-maligned offensive line deserved it too, as he threw for 242 yards and wasn't sacked once. Mostly, the Lions' defense deserved it, stuffing Green Bay's running game and forcing Rodgers to throw a career-high 61 times. Normally, that doesn't end well for anyone, but the Lions' secondary aggressively battled receivers. Cornerback Darius Slay was brilliant, holding James Jones without a single catch. Even when two cornerbacks, Nevin Lawson and Josh Wilson, went down, there was someone like Butler, who wasn't listed on the game's flip card.

The Lions were due for something good to happen, even on a day they didn't play their best. The offense has a long, long way to go under new coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, but there was more discipline on both sides of the ball — only three penalties by the Lions.

On defense, players showed their words weren't hollow. They vowed to keep fighting, for Caldwell and for themselves, and they scrapped fiercely, if not always prettily. The guy with the biggest moment, Butler, said he was only in on four plays, but one was all it took.

"I told him, 'Hey man, we brought you here for this reason, for this moment,'" safety Glover Quin said. "You know they're gonna come after you, just coming off the street. He handled it like a champ. It's a crazy game, I'm not gonna lie. Going against Aaron Rodgers at home, we just locked in. It was a great win for the organization, and now we gotta stack them up."

It was a memorable win for what it prevented, as much as for what it gained. It ended the Lions' Wisconsin drought that began in 1991. It featured improbability stacked upon improbability, from the odds of an experienced kicker missing two extra points, to the odds of an onside kick being successful, to the odds of Crosby flubbing a makeable field goal.

And then the longest odds of all, that a guy could go from the couch to the field and make the biggest play against one of the best quarterbacks. Rodgers probably couldn't believe what he saw when Butler knocked the ball away. That's OK, because for several taut hours, most of Detroit couldn't believe what it saw either.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/bobwojnowski

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