Wojo: Lions are getting better at surviving the chaos

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford threw for 201 yards and a TD in Sunday's win. More importantly, he wasn't sacked and didn't throw an interception.

Philadelphia — It was back and forth, up and down, full of gifts and gaffes. Again the Lions teetered between command and collapse against a wounded opponent.

And again, when it was time to settle it, the Lions made a few clutch plays and the opponent made a few misplays. It may be too early to call it a trend, but it’s not too early to take notice. The Lions are playing with fight and flare, and if someone offers a gift or two, well, they’ll go ahead and take it.

This was the type of crazy game the Lions historically have lost, right down to the blocked field goal in the closing minutes that nearly crushed them. And then it became the type of game they seem more comfortable playing, right down to the sweaty final minute, as they pulled out a 27-24 victory over the Eagles on Sunday.

The Lions are now 2-0-1, and yes, still unbeaten if not unblemished. If you focus on the Eagles’ mistakes and injuries, you’re being cautiously realistic. You’re also missing the point. For the second straight week, the Lions beat an expected playoff team by responding every time it was required. Was it obvious the Eagles were missing top receivers DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery? Yep, and there were some colossal dropped passes.

But those were notable because the Lions’ receivers, especially Marvin Jones Jr. and Danny Amendola, made clutch, circus catches. Matthew Stafford again was equally cool and aggressive, didn’t throw an interception and didn’t get sacked.

When the game hung in the balance, with the Lions leading 20-17 late in the third quarter, Stafford and his receivers made three spectacular plays, the last a 12-yard touchdown pass to a diving Jones. Earlier in the drive, Amendola made a nice grab for a 22-yard gain. Moments before that, Stafford beat a blitz called by his former head coach Jim Schwartz, now the Eagles defensive coordinator, to fire a 27-yard strike to Jones, who again laid out to get it.

'Doing just enough'

Since that dubious 27-27 opening tie with Arizona, the Lions have edged the Chargers, 13-10, and edged the Eagles (1-2), and while it’s only two games, it’s not something we’re used to seeing and comprehending.

“I think it’s good to get wins not playing your best football, and I know we haven’t played our best football,” Stafford said. “We’re doing just enough, making those crucial plays. I think our defense is doing a great job getting off the field on third or fourth down.  … Obviously you’d love to be up three scores and have a bunch of sunflower seeds in our cheeks just having a good time, but it doesn’t happen that way all the time.”

The Lions may not have time to spit seeds, but Stafford has had time to throw them, and you can see the ways new coordinator Darrell Bevell is moving him around and pushing the issue. He even called a double-reverse that newcomer J.D. McKissic took for 44 yards. In the second season under Matt Patricia, the Lions gradually are cranking up the aggressiveness, as the comfort level appears to be rising.

Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz was sacked three times, including twice in a row on the series right after the Lions restored their 10-point lead. That’s how it went, a typically tight, tough NFL game that came down to big plays and miscues. The Eagles lost two fumbles but the Lions settled for field goals on both drives.

At times, the Lions were undisciplined, committing nine penalties, including personal fouls on Trey Flowers and Jarrad Davis that could’ve been devastating. The Eagles took advantage to score with 6:59 left, and suddenly it was 27-24. You knew it was coming, right? And then it wasn’t.

Amendola made a fantastic toe-tapping sideline catch for a 15-yard gain, which allowed the Lions to kill more clock. After stopping Philadelphia again, the Lions tried for a six-point lead, but Matt Prater’s 46-yard field goal was blocked, and the Eagles nearly returned it all the way with 1:40 left.

Ah, but another mistake, an illegal block on the return backed Philadelphia up. And then another mistake on fourth down, as Eagles receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside let the ball slip through his hands near the goal line with 41 seconds left, and the Lions escaped.

'We could've given up'

This was the upside-down world, as the home crowd lamented calls and booed the play-calling, and the visiting Lions simply persevered.

“I’m proud of the players for their work ethic right now, the habits they’re creating, the way they’re approaching each week,” Patricia said. “But we have a lot of improving to do.”

No doubt. But speaking of perseverance, the Lions got a huge boost from a 100-yard kickoff return by Jamal Agnew, one week after he was benched. Even though Kerryon Johnson was held down by a stout Eagles defense, he made perhaps the toughest play of the game. With the Lions inside Philadelphia’s 2 in the second quarter, Johnson was stuffed twice. On third down, he took to the air and scored on a twisting 1-yard leap to put the Lions ahead 14-10.

He said he’d never risked a goal-line hurdle playing at Auburn, and he wasn’t excited about trying it here.

“Yeah, it’s scary, but I’m trying to win, and if that’s what I gotta do to win, I’m all up for that,” said Johnson, who rushed for 36 yards on 20 carries. “I put my body on the line every play anyway, so I might as well do it scoring a touchdown. … It was a very nerve-wracking game. We could’ve given up when they started storming back, they could’ve given up when we got up. Neither team did, which is why they were in the Super Bowl not too long ago, and why we’re winning games right now.”

Maybe the Lions actually are evolving, because this wasn’t one of those giddy, can’t-believe-we-pulled-it-out postgame scenes. Stafford harped on the passes he missed — 18-for-32 for 201 yards. The Lions face high-powered Kansas City next, and they’ll need star cornerback Darius Slay healthy. He injured his right hamstring in the third quarter and didn’t return, but he was smiling and walking relatively normal after the game.

Outside the locker room, Patricia knelt on his injured leg to hug owner Martha Ford and share a laugh. Later to the media, he stuck to his standard low-key platitudes. There was excitement but it wasn’t over the top, which happens when something happens more than once. The Lions made it happen again, with a little help from the opponent. More important, they look increasingly capable of helping themselves.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski