Wojo: First-place Lions keep defying the odds

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
A'Shawn Robinson (91)

Detroit — Don’t ask why. Don’t ask how. Don’t even bother asking how much longer it can go.

It’s time, probably past time, to acknowledge the Lions aren’t fluky or lucky or magically touched by the fickle finger of fate. They’ve won six of seven. They’re in first place. And the roar in Ford Field on Thanksgiving as they prevailed again on the final play, 16-13 over the Vikings, had an increasingly familiar echo.

The Lions did it again, in almost the exact same way, with a fourth-quarter comeback featuring huge plays from the quarterback, the kicker and the cornerback. The names and positions might change but the pattern is undeniable and remarkable, almost eerie. In all 11 games this season, the Lions trailed in the fourth quarter. Seven times they rallied to win, usually led by Matthew Stafford, often sparked by a defensive play.

It’s hard to tell how it happened after their 1-3 start, but the Lions are unearthing a new batch of adjectives — clutch, poised, gutsy. By beating the Vikings for the second time in three games, they’re 7-4 and in position to win their first division title since 1993, leading the Vikings (6-5) and Packers (4-6). This is a team pushing past its limits, living on the edge, getting some breaks and making its own.

“Charmed life?” Stafford said with a smirk, in response to a question. “Charmed life, we’d be up by 30 in the fourth quarter. We’re just battling. We don’t feel lucky to be down in every fourth quarter. We feel like we’re working our tails off to get wins.”

At this stage, the labels don’t even matter. The Lions have a quarterback they believe in and a coaching staff extracting maximum effort from a roster that doesn’t dazzle. The Lions rank in the bottom half of the league in many statistical categories, and yet when a play absolutely is needed, someone keeps making it.

This time it was Stafford, then receiver Anquan Boldin, then Darius Slay, who intercepted Sam Bradford’s pass with 30 seconds left in a 13-13 game. Matt Prater followed with a 40-yard field goal as time expired, which merely made him 25-for-25 in his career on tying or winning fourth-quarter field goals.

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Beginning to believe

Jim Caldwell isn’t overthinking the clutch streak and isn’t looking beyond next week’s trip to New Orleans. The narrow margins — every game decided by seven points or fewer — confirm the Lions’ scrappiness, and underscore their flaws. They struggle to sustain offense, and Stafford was off for chunks of this game.

If the Lions were a dominant team, they wouldn’t give their fans heart palpitations every fourth quarter. But the more they win, they more they think they can win, the more confidently they play late, as if they’re addicted to adrenalin.

“I do think our group plays loose and aggressive, that’s kind of how we try to keep it,” Caldwell said. “You can’t play a ballgame uptight. They don’t get uptight even at the end of games. In tough situations that can be a little uncomfortable, it doesn’t bother them. They’ve been in it. They find a way.”

And Caldwell and his staff are creating a way. For all the criticism they got early, they deserve credit for this. On Slay’s interception, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and safety Glover Quin made a call they hadn’t previously used, and Slay made the gamble pay off, jumping in front of Adam Thielen to snag the ball.

When the Lions pulled off their miraculous comeback earlier in Minnesota, the key play was a 27-yard pass from Stafford to unheralded Andre Roberts in the closing seconds. It was a route installed by offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter for that very situation. Prater sent the game to overtime with a 58-yard field goal and Golden Tate won it on a 28-yard catch and run.

“Like I keep saying, when you do it in games, you start to believe,” Quin said. “When you’ve done it, now you’re speaking from an experience standpoint.”

Remain calm, keep winning

The Lions have exhibited a calmness that reflects the coach, and a feistiness that reflects the quarterback. In the two victories over the Vikings, they’ve made Bradford and coach Mike Zimmer look tentative. All Bradford did Thursday was dump short passes and hope for a break. He completed 31 of 37, but when he finally took a risk, Slay baited him and jumped the route.

“It was a great defensive call,” said Thielen, the intended receiver. “They put him in a really good position, and obviously he’s a good player.”

And consider the unseen strategies. The Vikings were forced to gamble on third down with 38 seconds left because the Lions had preserved their three timeouts and would’ve stopped the clock to get the ball back.

For all their defensive shortcomings, the Lions have held their past five opponents to 20 points or fewer. They let Bradford merrily fling the ball around, but the Vikings converted only two of 10 third downs and played as if afraid to make a mistake.

When the moment arrives, the Lions don’t tremble. They took over at their own 2 with 5:02 left, trailing 13-10, and Stafford quickly moved them out of the shadow of defeat against a tough defense. The key play was on third-and-8 from the 18, when the pocket collapsed and he was about to go down, but flung the ball to Boldin for a 29-yard gain.

The drive bogged but Prater’s 48-yard field goal tied it, and put the Lions in a position they know well. Whether at the 2 or the 50, they like their chances more and more.

“I don’t care where they put the ball down with the guys we’ve got in that huddle,” Stafford said. “Just another drive, another big moment.”

Big and getting bigger. On the huge Thanksgiving stage, the Lions followed their favorite script. Whatever they’re doing, wherever this is going, it’s hard to explain, and impossible to ignore.