Wojo: Flawed Lions still getting it done
Chicago — After all these years, the Lions would give an arm and a leg to win their division. And that’s good, because while they might not possess all the pieces, they certainly have an arm and a leg, as well as a few other key elements.
You know the well-documented arm, belonging to Matthew Stafford. On this day, the Lions also needed the special leg of Matt Prater, who booted them to the type of victory they’ve become pretty darn good at collecting.
Prater’s 52-yard field goal through a swirling wind with 1:35 left gave the Lions a 27-24 victory over the Bears Sunday, and even in impossible conditions, there was nothing improbable about the kick. You could say that about the victory itself, that despite again falling behind a lesser team, there was nothing improbable about how they won it.
It was the Lions’ third straight victory, and at 6-4, they churn toward a Thanksgiving Day showdown with the first-place Vikings (8-2). They haven’t done it comfortably but they’re doing it more and more confidently, beating all three division opponents — Chicago, Green Bay, Minnesota — on the road in the same season for the first time in the Super Bowl era.
Listen. The Lions have to be tougher defensively and start quicker on offense to beat the scorching Vikings. But they’ve already done it once, and the festive atmosphere Thursday should be compelling.
We can pick through the Lions’ flaws, and the Bears (3-7) certainly tried to. For the second straight week, an underdog pushed the Lions hard and grabbed a 10-0 lead. The Bears ran through the defensive line like the Browns did a week ago, and in 35-degree weather, that’s often how teams win.
But the Lions are winning their own peculiar way, with the assets they have, and frankly, they don’t have much of a choice. Also for the second straight week, they scored a defensive touchdown, when DJ Hayden picked up a fumble and raced 27 yards. Against the Browns, Nevin Lawson scooped a fumble and took it 44 yards for a touchdown. The Lions lead the NFL with five defensive touchdowns and two return touchdowns.
Pride and joy
“I liked the fight we had in us,” Jim Caldwell said. “I think we all recognize we put ourselves in that position, but I liked the way we came out of it. Oftentimes, particularly on the road, some teams take a nosedive when they get behind. But our guys did a nice job giving us a chance to win. I’m proud of that.”
That means Stafford had to do what he does, firing sharp spirals into the wind, completing 21 of 31 for 299 yards, without an interception. That means the receivers sometimes have to take their turns, and it was Marvin Jones’ turn with a 28-yard touchdown reception.
The Lions don’t have a marquee running back — Theo Riddick led them with 35 yards rushing — while the Bears’ Jordan Howard rumbled for 125.
They don’t have a guaranteed go-to receiver, with TJ Jones and Eric Ebron grabbing more this game, instead of Golden Tate.
They do have the magnificent right leg of Prater, who’s 21-for-24 this season, including six field goals of 50-plus yards. On the final attempt, Caldwell thought Prater was out of his range — pre-determined before the game because of the wind — but when he glanced down the sideline, his kicker gave him the nod, then naturally, calmly drilled it with yards to spare.
“A lot more goes into it than just me kicking the ball with (Don Muhlbach) snapping,” Prater said. “I get too much credit for the guys. It was a good kick. It was difficult. The win counts all the same.”
The booming kick came at the end of a drive that consumed most of the final five minutes. And when given almost the exact same opportunity moments later, the Bears’ Connor Barth missed badly on a 46-yard attempt with three seconds left.
That’s the difference between 6-4 teams and 3-7 teams. It’s not a common formula for success this time of year, winging the ball around and hoping for a couple big plays and big boots, but you know what? The Lions now have a nine-game winning streak in November, the longest in the league. They might be incapable of chewing up yards on the ground, but chew on that stat.
Rush to judgment
The run defense is a problem, yes. If they have legitimate postseason hopes, that must be fixed. They surrendered 201 yards to the Browns and 222 to the Bears, including 53 by elusive rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. But the Lions have become a determined second-half team. Howard had 88 yards in the first half, 0 in the third quarter, then 37 in the fourth quarter, when the Bears drove for the tying touchdown.
Uncomfortable spot for the Lions, suddenly tied in a suddenly noisy stadium? Not really. What followed was the 31st fourth-quarter game-winning drive of Stafford’s career.
“I think we’re a confident group no matter what time of the game it is, fourth quarter, first quarter, doesn’t matter,” Stafford said. “As a team, we all just feel we’re going to make the plays to win the game. It doesn’t always happen, but more often than not, when you’re feeling that way and you’re playing that way, it does.”
The Lions set an NFL record with eight fourth-quarter comebacks last year, and needed each one to squeeze into the playoffs at 9-7. They’re healthier right now this season, with Taylor Decker’s return at left tackle providing the full complement of the offense. They have three more division games, all at home, and road contests against non-powers Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Cincinnati.
You’d think in some of these upcoming contests, the Lions might build a lead and not sweat it. But with this team and its unorthodox variables, I wouldn’t count on it. When you can’t consistently run the ball, and you’ve developed gaping holes in your run defense, you’re liable to be hanging on or coming back.
Truly, that’s fine with them.
“We’re cool, just because we’ve been in all these situations,” Marvin Jones said. “Just last year, all our wins were comebacks. They’re high intensity, and us going through that, we won’t panic.”
Is it the ideal way to win, spotting leads and allowing big runs? Well, no, and it’s not conducive to deep playoff success. But until the Lions find something better, they’ll stick with this, thank you very much, out on a limb with whatever limbs are needed.