Niyo: Stafford finds another unlikely way to spark win

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — Matthew Stafford threw both arms in the air triumphantly — instinctively, I suppose — and the crowd inside Ford Field roared its approval.

And in a season full of big plays and improbable finishes, you might as well add this one to the list: Another fourth-quarter comeback win for the Lions secured on a play on which the ball was never snapped.

On a play that almost never works, frankly. And yet it did, just as Stafford thought it might, because these are the Jaguars (2-8) and this is what they do. In fact, this is exactly what they’d done way back in Week 2, when Philip Rivers tried that old-school hard count on fourth-and-1 from the 4-yard line, and veteran defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks fell for it.

Sunday, it was fourth-and-2 from the Jacksonville 46, and there was virtually no chance the Lions were going to run a play. Not with 2 1/2 minutes to play and the Lions clinging to a four-point lead. But Stafford rushed his team to the line, anyway, angrily shooed away an official standing over the ball — “It probably helped with the theatrics of it,” he later joked — then emphatically barked out his cadence. And you’ll never guess who came bursting through the line.

Easy, Marks.

Justin Rogers’ Lions grades: Stafford clutch, line crumbles

So instead of punting the ball back and asking their defense to win the game, the Lions, who’d already leaned far too heavily on that group Sunday, kept their drive alive. And a team that had mustered just 35 plays and seven first downs through three quarters — a team that rushed for just 14 yards on 21 carries all game against the Jaguars — managed to kill nearly 8 minutes off the clock. All but the final 22 seconds of the fourth quarter

“A lot of plays in this game,” Stafford shrugged later, “that was just one of them.”

But it’s one that pretty accurately sums up this NFL season in Detroit, where the first-place Lions keep finding odd ways to win even more games than they rightly should. And we keep finding new ways to doubt them, right up until the fourth quarter, when they defy everything — their critics, their history, the game clock, logic, you name it.

Thursday showdown

Sunday’s 26-19 victory over the Jaguars means the Lions are now the first team in NFL history to have each of their first 10 games decided by 7 points or fewer. But they’re also one of only two teams in the league this season to trail in the fourth quarter in every game. The other is Cleveland, which on Sunday lost to Pittsburgh. The Browns are 0-11. The Lions are 6-4, and still holding a tiebreaker lead atop the NFC North standings. Go figure, right?

They’ll host the team they’re tied with at 6-4 — the Minnesota Vikings — at Ford Field on Thanksgiving. And here’s a bit of advice. Don’t put the turkey in the oven before noon. Because unlike the last few years, I wouldn’t expect a blowout.

Wouldn’t expect a win, either, with another performance like this. Then again, if we’ve learned anything with this Lions team, it’s to expect the unexpected.

Fittingly, against a Jacksonville team that was on the verge of setting an NFL record for most consecutive games (six) without forcing a turnover, the Lions fumbled on the first play from scrimmage Sunday. But the officials had ruled Anquan Boldin down, and a replay review surprisingly didn’t overturn the call.

On the next snap, rookie left tackle Taylor Decker was whistled for a false start. It was going to be that kind of day, apparently. And it was, as the Lions, coming off a bye week, started slow and never really found any traction offensively.


By halftime, they’d gained just 87 total yards, 67 of them coming in a 2-minute drill to set up a late field goal. At that point, the Lions had more punts (five) than rushing yards, and save for a few big plays in the second half, it wouldn’t get much better than that.

“I felt like we were just struggling for yards all game,” Stafford said. “We were hurting ourselves — negative runs, negative plays, sacks, missed throws, drops, whatever it was. Any way we could have a negative, we had it.”

Yet the score was tied at the half thanks to their special teams, as Andre Roberts, who’d earlier muffed a punt at his own 11-yard line to set up a Jaguars field goal, returned one 55 yards for a score. They were still in it entering the fourth quarter — trailing 19-16 – thanks to a 39-yard interception return by Rafael Bush.

Lions' Roberts atones for fumble with timely TD return

And for the Lions, that’s right where they need to be, and exactly where they keep finding themselves: Still in it.

“I guess when you start putting the heat on us, man, we start playing better,” said tight end Eric Ebron, who played well again and provided two of the biggest plays late.

On third-and-13 on the Lions’ first drive of the fourth quarter, Stafford hit Ebron for a 61-yard pass play to the Jaguars 8. Two snaps later, he took the handoff on a jet sweep — the same play the Vikings had burned the Lions with two weeks ago in Minnesota — and barreled into the end zone for what proved to be the winning score.

“Winning never is pretty, at least not for us these days,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said, grinning like the Cheshire cat. “But we’ll take it.”

Yep, they’ll take it and run, especially on a day — another day, really — it appeared they couldn’t do that if they tried. @johnniyo