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Wojo: Playoffs aren’t far-fetched notion for captivating Lions

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — The more you see it, the more you wonder. The Lions keep doing it the same way, pulling out three straight victories in the sweaty closing minutes, and it’s no longer a surprise when they do. Now the question has changed to something far more intriguing: Can they sustain it?

When Matthew Stafford plays like this, and his dynamic receivers catch like this, anything is possible, even when it seems impossible. Their defense is decimated. They’re down to their fourth and fifth running backs. They periodically run out of tight ends. But the Lions are exhibiting some sort of late-game clutch gene, and whether they can keep it up or not, it’s captivating to watch.

They beat Washington 20-17 Sunday on Stafford’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin with 16 seconds left, and suddenly they’re 4-3. After snapping Washington’s four-game winning streak, the Lions are a half-game behind the Eagles for the second wild card in the NFC, and they hold the head-to-head tie-breaker. I should have my typing fingers broken for mentioning playoff scenarios with nine games remaining, but the possibilities aren’t necessarily ridiculous.

When you have a talented quarterback playing the best football of his career, and an offensive staff that suits him, and a young line that’s developing, and terrific receivers in Marvin Jones, Golden Tate and Anquan Boldin, you have a chance, as long as you keep it close. And the Lions keep games close better (or worse) than anyone.

All seven of their contests have been decided by seven points or fewer, something no other team in the league has done. Six of the seven margins have been four points or less. On one hand, the defense isn’t good enough or healthy enough to lock opponents down, and it’s doubtful the Lions can keep winning like this.

Hanging around

On the other hand, they have unique ways to get it done. It starts with Stafford, of course, but he’s not the only savvy, steadying force. Coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has continued what he started when he took over midway through last season, putting together creative, aggressive game plans that incorporate every element.

And let’s not overlook Jim Caldwell’s role. Three weeks ago, after a miserable showing in Chicago, the Lions were 1-3 and Caldwell was fielding questions about his job security. He didn’t panic and didn’t deflect blame, and isn’t inclined to accept any praise now.

This is the Stafford Show, and a quarterback’s eighth season is about when many make the leap to elite. He’s leaping brilliantly, trusting his play-calling and his play-makers.

“My confidence comes from (Stafford’s) confidence,” said Tate, playing with renewed fervor. “The great thing about this offense is, we have so many players that can make plays, and we don’t even have all our top players. You don’t have to be the best team in the league every Sunday, you just got to be better than the team you’re playing. And we’re finding ways.”

That’s an especially relevant comment. On any given Sunday, the Lions are far from the best team in the league. But as long as they hang around, they’ve proven they have a shot. Playing in his 100th game as a Lion, Stafford engineered his 24th fourth-quarter comeback. That means one-fourth of his starts have been decided in the closing minutes, and that doesn’t count the tight games the Lions lost.

‘Great settling force’

The funny thing is, when Calvin Johnson retired, he was supposed to take the Lions’ big-play capability with him, right? That was a suggestion many considered a compliment to Johnson, but really was an insult to Stafford.

Jones has been a tremendous addition. Boldin, 36, is using his size and smarts expertly. Tate has 297 yards receiving in the three-game winning streak. Even little-known Andre Roberts has contributed, making up for a dropped pass with a leaping, ball-tapping 20-yard catch on the final possession.

That drive began at the Lions’ 25 with 1:05 left, Detroit trailing 17-13. Kirk Cousins, who was superb, had just strolled in for a 19-yard touchdown run. The Lions immediately covered the 75 yards, nicely encapsulating what they can do. Stafford completed passes to three different receivers and scrambled for 14 yards, something he does better and better, a sign of his enhanced awareness and command.

The winning pass was an absolute laser, squeezed between three defenders, an all-or-nothing throw that epitomizes Stafford’s confidence in the clutch.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the veteran leadership we have,” Caldwell said. “I think our coaches do a great job just coaching situational football at the end. When you have guys that have been around the block like Matthew, he has a great settling force when things are a little tight.”

The Lions certainly want to be more proficient earlier in games. But beating Washington, which came in on a roll, stamped some legitimacy on their own streak. Now they head on the road to Houston (4-2) and Minnesota (5-2), and neither game will be easy. But both have their own flaws, like pretty much every team outside of New England.

The Lions’ flaws will be tested again and again, and they’ll probably have to win all their remaining home games — Jacksonville, Minnesota, Chicago, Green Bay — to have a real shot at contention. Improbable? Maybe. But at least they’ve shown, the longer they hang around, the tougher they get. @bobwojnowski