Lions say early morning prep helps them late in games

Terry Foster
The Detroit News

Allen Park – In order to understand the Lions' fourth-quarter miracles, we must take you into the team dressing room at 7 in the morning.

Team meetings have not yet begun, but players huddle over full plates of scrambled eggs, bacon and hot coffee. Their heads are bent down, looking over sheets of photos and game plans. Glover Quin sits next to teammates Rashean Mathis and James Ihedigbo.

Center Dominic Raiola is in deep conversation with guard Rob Sims. The receivers talk about Arizona's secondary.

They are already game planning for the final moments of a close game -- whether it comes or not.

The Lions are not the Cardiac Cats by accident. Players say they always game plan for tight finishes.

The Lions (7-2) have won their last three games with late rallies that have turned Sunday's game at the Cardinals (8-1) into the marquee matchup of the weekend. If it turns into another nail-biter, the Lions say they will be prepared, just as they have the past few weeks.

During this three-week miracle march the Lions have done the following:

* Quarterback Matthew Stafford threw two touchdown passes in the final four minutes to beat the Saints 24-23.

* The Lions overcame a 21-0 deficit to beat the Falcons 22-21 on a last-second Matt Prater field goal from 48 yards out.

* The Lions' good fortune continued Sunday when Stafford hit Theo Riddick from 11 yards out with 29 seconds left in a 20-16 victory over the Dolphins.

The Lions have led for 35 minutes, 2 seconds of their last 180 minutes of football, but have outscored opponents 66-9 in the fourth quarter. They've only been penalized five times for 33 yards in the fourth and one of the penalties – a 5-yard delay of game penalty – gave the Lions one more play to beat Atlanta.

"I think we've finally got it," said Raiola. "We became mature enough to figure it out."

Contrary to popular belief, the Lions have been in a number of games entering the fourth quarter in recent seasons. But drive-killing holding penalties and awkward pass interference penalties gave opponents new life. Big mistakes routinely prevented the Lions from hitting big moments.

That is not happening this season.

This brings us to the early-morning film and rap sessions in the dressing stalls. Quin believes in the more eyes, the better the game plan.

"When you get tired or get into a stressful situation you revert back to what you like," Quin said, addressing the Lions' fourth-quarter success this season. "When crunch time comes you are going to go with a play that the quarterback likes, the coach likes. When you put in the (preparation) time and the effort, when you get to crunch time, that is when you start pulling out some things. By the fourth quarter it is clear as daylight."

The morning sessions revitalize Raiola. It is a bonding experience like none he has seen in his 14 seasons with the Lions.

"You can feel it walking around here," he said. "It is contagious. It is a brotherhood and getting tighter every day."

Defensive end Jason Jones said this feeling began in April when the team first met head coach Jim Caldwell. He said guys wanted to see if he was shooting it straight or shooting bull. Jones was skeptical at first because he's heard every coach promise in the world.

"If somebody on the street tells you something that is not real you just know it," he said. "When he came in and said he was going to take care of us -- I heard that story before. But he stuck to it. Once he did, then guys started to fall in."

And they began falling out of bed early to prepare for crunch time of tight games.