The Lions started slow, finished with a flurry and head to New York 1-0 on the season.
Detroit — For opening rides, this was as crazy as it gets. The Lions went from reeling to rolling in such a flash, it was hard to keep up.
One moment they were committing so many blunders, the crowd was booing. The next moment, they were racing unimpeded into the end zone from every direction. It was all on display, from the young talent to the veteran quarterback to a defense that played as if in a fury.
Matthew Stafford turned it around and the defense absolutely turned it on, and the Lions swiped a 35-23 victory over the Cardinals in the season-opener Sunday at Ford Field. This was inexplicable for a few reasons, but mainly because the Lions first showed what they can’t be, and then showed what they could be.
They unleashed a month’s worth of big plays just in the fourth quarter, including a pair of touchdown passes to rookie Kenny Golladay and a 35-yard interception return by Miles Killebrew. That was after they unleashed a month’s worth of mistakes in the first quarter, including an 82-yard interception return by Arizona’s Justin Bethel on Stafford’s first pass of the season.
“Not fun,” Stafford said with a wry smile. “I’m not fired up having to try to make a tackle on the first pass I throw. But I’ve thrown interceptions in this league and I’ll probably throw another one. We just kept our heads down and kept plugging.”
This is what the Lions showed at times last season, with eight comeback victories while making the playoffs. They didn’t lose that edge, although they wouldn’t mind losing the sloppy edge.
At the start, they committed penalties, botched a punt, lost punter Kasey Redfern to injury, blew an extra point, flubbed a kickoff return and generally played as if in a fog. But here’s why they came back against a team with the No. 2 defense in the NFL last season and one of the best all-around backs in David Johnson: Because the defense kept it close long enough for Stafford to break it open.
“One of the things you don’t want to do is, you don’t want to completely implode,” Jim Caldwell said. “Which coaches can very easily do with a group, if you’re not settled. And we had a multitude of issues that popped up. But the great thing about it is, our team showed resiliency. You find some teams in cases like that, they’ll be down 28-0 after the first quarter. Our defense played well, they didn’t lose their poise, they hung in there.”
That’s been a trademark under Caldwell and Stafford, although this was a bit different. We spent the entire offseason wondering who would make impact plays on defense, and for one afternoon, the answer was, well, everybody.
The Lions intercepted three passes — Killebrew, Glover Quin, Tavon Wilson — and could’ve had three more, and rookie linebacker Jarrad Davis recovered a fumble. Cardinals veteran quarterback Carson Palmer was under fairly constant pressure, although sacked only once.
This was about busting trends, and perhaps starting new ones. The Lions had lost seven in a row to Arizona. They forced 14 turnovers all of last season, and collected four in this one.
It was bizarre, because the 37-year-old Palmer was firing passes directly to Lions defenders, although he was feeling heat. Johnson ran for only 23 yards and caught six passes for 68 yards before leaving with an injury.
“I try to preach to the guys all the time — interceptions don’t come from doing something spectacular,” Quin said. “Nine times out of 10, if you just do your job and be in the spot you’re supposed to be in and hustle, interceptions will come to you.”
That’s pretty much how it went. The first half was awful, frankly, on both sides, as Arizona took a 10-9 lead. It was 17-9 late in the third before Davis scooped up a Johnson fumble, knocked loose by A’Shawn Robinson, and the rally was on.
Say what you will about the Lions’ perceived strengths and weaknesses, but they don’t panic, and Stafford usually finds his way back to his key receivers. Golladay, the semi-celebrated rookie, wasn’t noticeable early, then caught 10- and 45-yard touchdown passes on consecutive fourth-quarter drives.
Golden Tate was knocked off his route on Stafford’s first pass of the game, resulting in the interception. By the end, he was the most-dependable target, with 10 catches for 107 yards.
“We just needed to settle down because we got a bunch of great players, we got some great coaches, we got a fantastic quarterback,” Tate said. “We just need to be us. It didn’t take anything extraordinary, we just need to do our jobs. … We were making some knucklehead mistakes, but we knew once we settle in, we can move the ball with the best of them.”
That’s the spoken plan this season, to move the ball frequently with Stafford and his array of receivers.
It’s been more of an unspoken plan with an unproven defense of unknown play-making ability. In this one, Davis led the team with nine tackles and Anthony Zettel was a disrupter with two tackles for loss.
The game was like two major tests in one. It was the opener, so the Lions showed nerves. And then it got ugly, and the Lions showed nerve. When it was over, they felt they showed all aspects of what they can be.
“I mean, you guys have seen this team before,” Caldwell said with a smile. “Number one, I know we’re young because we made a whole bunch of young mistakes. Number two, I think the core guys still have that same sort of fight in them regardless of the circumstances. They’ll fight you to the end and get it done, and it’s always good to see them again display that.”
We saw it all in one frantic afternoon. It was an unexpected wild ride, and if this is what it’s going to be like, you’d better buckle up, and hope the Lions keep buckling down.