Wojo: Stafford's savvy spares Lions from opening flop
Indianapolis — It was won and then it was lost, then won again and seemingly lost again. And then incredibly, with a swift kick of redemption, the Lions prevailed with the type of fateful twist that often crushes them.
You saw this coming, right? Yeah, right. Actually, the Lions said they felt it coming, with the game in Matthew Stafford’s hot hand in the final minute, and then at the foot of their normally reliable kicker in the final seconds. It’s where they wanted to be — they just didn’t expect to take the bizarre path getting there.
Matt Prater had missed an extra point moments earlier, which was the one-point difference in the score, right up until he delivered the ultimate difference.
His 43-yard field goal with four seconds left lifted the Lions to a 39-35 opening victory over the battered Colts on Sunday. The Lions added two more points on a safety as the Colts desperately passed the ball around as time expired, a wacky footnote to a wild game.
All game long, there were flashbacks to last year’s opener, and fans in Detroit surely were monitoring their handy Same-Old-Lions barometers. In that loss at San Diego, the Lions built a 21-3 lead and a 21-10 halftime lead. In this game, the Lions built a 21-3 lead and a 21-10 halftime lead.
As it turned out, this was different — different in the way Stafford accurately threw to all sorts of receivers and backs, different in the way Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick ran, different with Calvin Johnson no longer here to draw so much attention.
If the Lions truly are different this year, we’ll need to see more substantive evidence. But in the midst of all the action, there were tangible clues, including Stafford’s fiery command. He exploited a horribly depleted Colts defense (missing most of its secondary), completing 31 of 39 passes for 340 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He did it in the final 37 seconds when the Lions, trailing 35-34, took over at their 25 with all three timeouts and he completed three quick passes — to Riddick, Eric Ebron and Marvin Jones — to set up Prater’s kick.
It was classic Stafford, slinging when he had to, and frankly, he looked like he did as the Lions went 6-2 down the stretch last season. If you lean toward tortuous omens, you probably lamented the blown lead. If you’re partial to uplifting omens, you saw Stafford make precise, short passes instead of high-risk heaves, which he does better and better in offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s faster-paced system.
“It was great to have the full complement of three timeouts, that’s team football, nobody’s burning a timeout in the third quarter,” Stafford said. “I just knew we were confident going into that last drive. Having the timeouts, we could throw the ball anywhere on the field, we didn’t have to go to the sideline. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t even sweating that last field goal. I knew after he missed the extra point, he’d hit it from 65.”
Prater had missed the extra point after Stafford flipped a screen pass to Riddick for a 13-yard touchdown with 4:04 left. Riddick slipped between defenders as Stafford was flattened, and the Lions had a 34-28 lead.
Andrew Luck, who was terrific in the second half, led the Colts right back, shredding the Lions’ secondary. That’s something that needs work, and the Lions’ touted defensive line also missed chances, sacking Luck only twice in 47 attempts. When Luck fired a 16-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jack Doyle with 37 seconds left, it sure felt like the Lions’ tawdry history was repeating itself.
But the Lions hadn’t wasted any timeouts, and Jim Caldwell coolly won a time-management battle with Colts coach Chuck Pagano in the closing minutes. Pagano took an ill-advised timeout while Caldwell preserved all three, giving Prater another chance.
“I was fortunate to come through at the end and redeem myself,” Prater said. “I thought the offense was moving the ball well all day, so I thought they’d definitely give me a chance. I think I was so mad, I could’ve kicked it from midfield.”
Prater sort of smiled, still pained by the miss. And make no mistake, this would’ve been a brutally painful loss for the Lions, certainly as bad as the 33-28 loss to the Chargers in last year’s opener.
But this has been the theme much of the offseason — Stafford must adjust to life without Calvin, and must prove last season’s final flourish was no fluke.
The hurry-up attack is designed to be more diversified, and the Lions had two impressive early drives covering 80 and 82 yards. They mixed the run and the pass, huddle and no-huddle, and for the most part, Stafford got decent protection, sacked only once.
He threw to pretty much everyone, and six players had at least three receptions, led by Golden Tate’s seven. Ebron made five clutch grabs. Abdullah (63 yards rushing) and Riddick (45) were dangerous all over the field, and the Lions actually ran for 116 yards.
So when they got the ball late, they didn’t have any doubt they’d at least maneuver into position.
“Honestly, I was thinking they gave us too much time,” Abdullah said. “Last year we were a pretty good two-minute team, and we’re just building on what we did. That’s one of our strongest suits.”
It can’t be their only strong suit, obviously. The defense needs to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, with both sacks collected by preseason wonder Kerry Hyder.
But the Lions did enough, just enough, to avert the type of bitter defeat we’ve seen before. Before we try to figure out if this is the start of something different, at least we can acknowledge the Lions didn’t do the exact same thing.