Detroit — This was the plan, laid out in prime time, executed in prime style. The Lions wanted to start fast and strike often, and this was about as fast as you can start.
There was Matthew Stafford, coolly sidestepping pressure, firing a 67-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson barely three minutes into the game, before the Ford Field crowd could even hit the full-throated throttle. The Lions did what they were supposed to do, and right away showed glittering flashes of who they can be, or should be.
OK, there also were a few unsettling glimpses of who they've been. But the Lions opened the Jim Caldwell era with a burst, beating the Giants, 35-14, Monday night. When the offense bogged down, the defense rose up, battering Eli Manning and grabbing two interceptions, including a highlight beauty by DeAndre Levy.
The theory is, the Lions are a talented bunch in need of direction, and with proper refining their offense could be as good as any. The guy who has to believe it the most is the quarterback, and Stafford showed a lot, including a nifty set of feet. He was accurate and composed, completing 22 of 32 passes for 346 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Stafford's superb game management was vital, because it appears the Lions won't be able to kick their penalty habit so easily. They also couldn't run the ball consistently, until they really needed to, at the end. But if you have Stafford finding the incomparable Johnson, then spreading the ball to Golden Tate and others, the Lions will score plenty.
The Stafford-Johnson combination was scintillating again. And if there was any doubt Stafford was in complete command, he punctuated it with a 5-yard touchdown scramble that boosted the lead to 27-7. When he crossed the goal line, he stopped abruptly, turned, then flipped the ball into the air with a flourish.
"I've always had that (cutback ability)," Stafford said. "Just kidding. It's about my only move, so the cat's out now. I was just trying to react, not a whole lot of thinking going on. Just trying to stay safe and maybe make a play."
Stay safe, stay smart. Those are the keys for Stafford, because with so many pieces at his disposal, he shouldn't have to force the issue. The new Joe Lombardi offense emphasizes versatility, and Stafford has worked especially hard on his footwork.
Johnson posted the best opening-game numbers of his career — seven catches, 164 yards, two touchdowns — but he didn't have to play as many snaps and didn't get mauled as often with double teams. With Reggie Bush, Joique Bell and all those tight ends and receivers, Johnson said he felt as good as he has in a while. Keeping him healthy is a major objective, because when he's out, everything changes.
"That plays a part in me feeling fresher throughout the game," Johnson said. "We have a lot of weapons out there, so everybody gets a chance to eat."
It's important to add all the qualifiers — it's just one game, the Giants aren't supposed to be any good, it's just one game, the Lions have won big before, it's just one game. But if there's a difference this time under Caldwell, it has to be Stafford, who forced too much and threw too many interceptions last season.
The Lions had no turnovers in this one. They committed eight penalties, but all were in the first half. They dominated every statistical category, as they should against a weak opponent, and converted 10 of 15 third downs.
"We came out on a mission to move the ball and to score touchdowns," said Tate, who had six catches for 93 yards. "I think they might have forgotten that C.J. is Megatron and left him open a few times. It's great to get a fast start."
It's all about the ending
It was yet another fresh start for the Lions, with Caldwell replacing Jim Schwartz, and it felt like it. It especially felt like it when Stafford was bouncing outside the pocket and they were rolling to a 14-0 lead.
But with the Lions, it's never about how they start, but how they finish. Last season, they started 6-3 and finished 1-6, continuing a pattern that needs to be broken. Under Schwartz, they were 15-9 in the first halves of seasons and 6-18 in the second halves.
The talent is there. That's the narrative, not just from the Lions, but from outside observers who see the flashy names and wonder when it will be refined. If only the Lions could cut down on the turnovers — they were second in the league to the Giants with 34 last season — and reduce the penalties, anything was possible, right?
Caldwell came in talking about discipline and accountability. Stafford was one of many who embraced high expectations, saying, "On paper, we're as talented as anybody in the league, in my opinion." That's an overstatement because of the defensive concerns, but the Lions might be as talented offensively as anybody in the league. And yes, their win-now mantra is realistic — they should be a playoff team.
On the first two possessions, Stafford and Johnson were brilliant. The sixth-year quarterback slid outside the pocket to evade pressure and waited until Johnson broke so wide open, it looked like he was running free in the Comerica Park outfield. The 67-yard touchdown made it 7-0, and they were just getting started.
"Matthew's got talent, obviously, inside the pocket and outside the pocket, and that's what makes him dangerous," Caldwell said. "The great thing about it is, I think he was about 65 percent completion percentage (69 percent, actually). We like to see anything over 62 percent."
That's the fine line of accuracy, another area the coaching staff is emphasizing for Stafford. On the second possession, Stafford rolled to his left, again eluded pressure, then flung the ball sidearm to a diving Johnson in the end zone. It was a risky throw, but also evidence of the confidence Stafford has in the new offense. The 16-yard strike made it 14-0, and the downtown party was on.
The score from across the street — Tigers 9, Royals 5 — was flashed on the scoreboard and good times were rolling, maybe a bit too good. To escape their past, the Lions will have to work at it. Discipline just doesn't happen because a new coach demands it. In the first half, the Lions committed eight penalties and led only 14-7, and had themselves to blame. The Giants gained 85 yards on the penalties, which amazingly was more than they gained by conventional means (75).
These Lions will take aggressive risks, and that's fine. But reckless risks? Not so much. Stafford should be experienced enough now to know when to dial it up and when to dial it down. When dialed in, this offense might even be able to finish what it started.