Wojo: Lions' clutch victory is silver lining to season's blue start

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Lions running back Theo Riddick celebrates his touchdown in the first quarter.

Detroit — If ever a team or a coach or a group of embattled players needed one, the Lions needed this. And at key moments, in key snapshots, you could see how badly they wanted it.

The Lions stopped the bleeding, and also stopped the bleating, at least for now. They did it with clutch plays from their best players, and that’s how the formula works in the NFL. Matt Prater’s 29-yard field goal with 1:28 left gave the Lions a 24-23 victory Sunday over the Eagles, but the game was decided immediately before then, and immediately after.

Matthew Stafford’s perfect 27-yard strike to Golden Tate on third-and-4 with 1:46 left set up the winning kick, capping an admirable, gutsy effort by Stafford. The Lions beat a team that hadn’t lost, and in the closing minutes, forced two turnovers – both by standout cornerback Darius Slay – off a team that hadn’t turned it over all season.

If you ever wanted an illustration of the NFL’s narrow margins, this was it. The Lions (2-3) had lost three in a row. The Eagles (3-1) had won three in a row, with hyped rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. With injuries piling up, this could have been a telling knell for the Lions, and could’ve stirred more noise about coach Jim Caldwell.

Digging deep

Give them credit. They didn’t sustain it all day but they started as if thoroughly prepared, with clever new wrinkles on offense and much more urgency. Stafford threw three touchdown passes as the Lions built a 21-7 lead, and it was apparent how much this meant. At one point, Stafford’s helmet was yanked off while he was trying to escape pressure, a nasty-looking play. While the Eagles were assessed the penalty, Stafford leaped up, shook his head and laughed, then retrieved his helmet.

And when Slay forced a fumble by Ryan Mathews with 2:34 left at Philadelphia’s 45, there was Caldwell jumping and pointing the Lions’ way, and nearly tripping over the pileup on the sideline. The Lions weren’t necessarily on fire all day, but they were fired up, and it showed.

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“It’s just one game, and we have a lot of work to do,” Caldwell said. “We’ve got to see if we can do it again. But this isn’t one of those things where you say it’s a defining moment. There’s no shortcuts. Everybody thinks there’s some miracle pill or some great turnaround with one game. It takes work and it takes time, but we’re still a long way away.”

That’s true. But imagine how far away and how dispiriting it would be at 1-4. One play can change a lot, and you need no more evidence than the Lions’ two home games this season – a 16-15 loss to the Titans and this 24-23 victory.

The Lions got some good fortune but they made it too, and “Big Play” Slay lived up to his nickname when he swiped an interception on a deep pass with 1:17 left. It was Wentz’s first interception and it wasn’t a bad throw, but a great defensive play.

More to follow?

So does this alter the course of the Lions’ season? Ah, not so fast on that. But they do have two more home games before hitting the road, and against a quality opponent, they didn’t buckle. They also played smarter and more efficiently, with Stafford completing 19-of-25 passes without an interception, although he lost a fumble. And sit down before you read this stat – the Eagles were called for 14 penalties, the Lions only two.

This doesn’t mean the season is saved. It does mean it’s not wrecked before the middle of October, and there are glimmers of hope.

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It was difficult getting pressure on Wentz, an unrelenting problem with Ziggy Ansah sidelined. But the Lions did record three sacks and didn’t get burned by the Eagles’ tight ends. Theo Riddick is proving to be more and more valuable and versatile, catching two touchdown passes. Tate had been struggling all season, but then there he was, sprinting open to grab the lofted pass from Stafford to the Eagles’ 12.

“It felt real good,” Tate said. “I needed that. This team needed that. It felt good to be found and make a play at the end.”

Stafford found his target when it mattered and the Lions found, well, I’m not sure exactly what. They found some relief, and perhaps a few more reasons to keep pushing forward.