Niyo: Behind Matthew Stafford's lead, Lions show they won't back down

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford walks off the field after a costly red-zone turnover in the third quarter.

Detroit — Matthew Stafford saw the pocket collapsing, so he tucked the football under his left arm and did what came naturally: He ran.

But he did more than that. He ran with a purpose.

With barely 4 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of a wild game Sunday against the NFL’s most potent offense, the Lions were trailing Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs by a 27-23 score.

Stafford had just converted another third down with a sideline throw to Kenny Golladay, and after faking a handoff to Kerryon Johnson, he dropped back to pass from his own 35-yard line. But there was no time to find a receiver, so Stafford had to improvise.

He stepped to his left, then stepped out of a diving tackle attempt from defensive end Frank Clark, ran through another from 310-pound defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi. And at that point, “I was feeling like a football player,” Stafford said with a wink, so he “decided to try and go for three.”

Stafford lowered his shoulder and drove it into the next defender, linebacker Anthony Hitchens. Yes, the same guy who’d been flagged for pass interference against the Lions in that playoff game in Dallas during the 2014 season — the flag that was later picked up by the referee in a moment that lives on in Lions infamy. (Sunday, the refs didn't even bother to throw the flag when Hitchens did the exact same thing to Kerryon Johnson in the third quarter. Two plays before that slow-motion, 100-yard fumble return by the Chiefs.)

Hitchens ultimately put a stop to Stafford’s run, throwing him down rather emphatically after a 7-yard gain. But the Lions’ quarterback popped up immediately and got in Hitchens’ face, and while his teammates ran to his defense, the Ford Field crowd roared.

Message sent

“Every yard counts out there,” Stafford explained later. “I’m not gonna do that every time. … But I want those guys on the sideline and in the huddle to know what I’m willing to do to try and help us win a game. I think they know that. And I think it sparked us a little bit.”

It did, clearly. So did the touchdown pass he threw a handful of plays later — another toe-tapping grab by Golladay — or any of a few dozen other plays the Lions made to push the Chiefs to the brink, only to fall just short in the end.

Stafford’s final two Hail Mary attempts fell harmlessly to the turf as time expired on a 34-30 loss. But on a day where the Lions seemed determined to send a message to the rest of the league — and not long after Stafford was honored during a halftime ceremony celebrating the franchise’s all-time team — his Bobby Layne routine might’ve been the perfect way to deliver it.

This team isn’t backing down from a fight, and the Lions' toughness — something general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia have been promising fans for a couple years now — really is starting to show in a variety of ways.

The Lions’ defense held up against the Chiefs’ aerial attack — harassing Patrick Mahomes, the reigning league MVP, into one of his worst outings as an NFL starter — despite playing most of the game without top cornerback Darius Slay and safety Quandre Diggs. Asked about the effort of that patchwork secondary, Patricia put it this way, "No one blinks. No one misses a beat." And even in defeat, he's right.

The Lions’ offense, meanwhile, was missing slot receiver Danny Amendola and also lost tight end T.J. Hockenson to a concussion after a scary fall in the third quarter. Yet they still scored 30 points and left at least a couple more scores on the table with fumbles inside the Chiefs’ 5-yard line. Stafford was guilty on the first of those turnovers, but he played a terrific game otherwise, finishing 21-of-34 for 291 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.

Pretty good for a guy who’s availability was suddenly in doubt this weekend.

Stafford showed up as a limited participant on Friday’s practice report and was listed as questionable for the Chiefs game due to a hip injury. Sunday morning, ESPN reported that he was dealing with considerable pain and that it might be related to the significant back injury he dealt with late last season. 

Tough customer

The Lions weren’t taking any chances, keeping both his backups — David Blough and Jeff Driskel — on the active roster Sunday for the first time this season. But while Stafford disputed the injury was tied to last year’s back problems in his postgame press conference, he declined to offer any more specifics about how he was feeling.

“I was OK, I was out there, I was playing,” he said. “I’ve played through a lot in my career. … I wanted to be out there for my guys.”

He’s done that for every game since the 2011 season opener, a streak of 132 consecutive starts that ranks third behind only the Chargers’ Philip Rivers and the Falcons’ Matt Ryan among active NFL quarterbacks. And though it was noteworthy that he got some scheduled days off during training camp and the preseason, it also bears repeating that he has everyone’s respect in the locker room by now.

“He’s one of the toughest guys we’ve got,” Patricia said. “I mean, there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. We’ve got a lot of guys out there that are banged up or got banged up during the game that went out and finished and played hard. And he was leading the charge.

“I tell you all the time, I’m just so appreciative that he’s our quarterback and he goes out and he fights and he works and he grinds and tries to get better. And they keep fighting and they follow him.”

Where this all leads is anyone’s guess at this point, only a quarter of the way through the regular season. The early bye week obviously comes at a good time for the Lions, who’ll have extra time to get some key pieces ready for a pivotal NFC North game at Green Bay on Monday Night Football. After that, it’s another divisional game at home against Minnesota.

But using Sunday's performance as another measuring stick, it's hard to argue with Stafford's assessment.

“I like where we’re going,” he said.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo