East Rutherford, N.J. — Drive after drive, Golden Tate made key plays for the Lions in Sunday's 24-17 win over the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium.
With Calvin Johnson severely limited by an ankle injury, Tate became Matthew Stafford's go-to option and showed why he was the Lions' top free-agent target this offseason, displaying his sure hands and downfield vision on several receptions.
For the Lions (3-1), this was a great way to close the first quarter of the season, a win that can give them confidence that last week's victory over the Green Bay Packers was no fluke.
Following an emotional victory over a division foe, the Lions went on the road and showed that their offense can excel against a good defense even with its best player, Johnson, sitting out much of the game.
Stafford led the Lions with good decision making and precise passing, finishing 24-of-34 for 293 yards and three total touchdowns, including a 1-yard rushing touchdown that capped a 14-play, 90-yard drive that gave the Lions a 24-10 lead early in the fourth quarter and silenced a crowd of 78,160 ready to see the Jets continue their comeback effort.
The Lions forced two turnovers, possessed the ball for nearly 10 more minutes than the Jets and had just five penalties, avoiding the costly errors that plagued them in recent past. Even though the Lions gained just 24 more yards than the Jets, 360-336, the matchup didn't seem that close.
Tate finished with eight catches, tying a career high, for 116 yards, just the fourth time in his career he's had 100-plus yards, a performance so strong that Johnson said he and Stafford discussed it after the game. Five of his catches were for more than 10 yards, and two converted third downs.
"There are guys that just have a knack," coach Jim Caldwell said, "for being able to get open utilizing the spacing on the field, whether it's man or zone and finding the soft spots in zone, being able to breseaak away and run away from you in man-to-man.
"And he's a power runner. For a guy his size, he's deceptive, and obviously he has all the competitiveness that you love. But he's a difference-maker for us."
The game remained in doubt, though, until the end. With Joique Bell (concussion), Theo Riddick (hamstring) and Montell Owens (hamstring) out in the fourth quarter, Reggie Bush was the only tailback option, but he ran hard on the final drive to run out the remaining 3 minutes and 41 seconds. Stafford made a great play on that drive, too, running to the right for 7 yards and the game-sealing first down on a play in which he chose not to hand it to Bush.
Johnson was limited the entire game and had just two catches for 12 yards, but Tate showed again why the Lions invested $31 million for the next five years.
"When I signed here it was no secret that Calvin was the best player in the league right now, the best receiver," Tate said. "But I wanted to push him and today was a day where I needed to be the No. 1. I needed to step up and do what Calvin does, and it's not a bad thing to win games in different ways."
For the Jets, Geno Smith struggled passing most of the game, going 17 of 33 for 209 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The crowd chanted for backup quarterback Michael Vick multiple times, but coach Rex Ryan said Smith will remain the team's starter after the game.
The Jets ran right through the Lions defense on the game's first drive with Chris Ivory gaining 51 yards on nine carries, but the Lions managed to hold them to a field goal, a 27-yarder by Nick Folk.
"Nothing," Caldwell said when asked what the defense changed after the first drive. "We just did what we were supposed to."
The Lions responded on the following drive with Alex Henery hitting a 51-yard field goal, his first attempt after signing with the Lions last Monday to replace Nate Freese. Henery missed a 52-yarder wide right later in the game, the fifth field goal the Lions have missed this season.
It was all Lions the rest of the first half as Smith struggled mightily with his accuracy, and Detroit reverted to its typical run-stopping ways. After scoring on the opening drive, the Jets finished the first half with five straight three-and-outs.
Stafford, meanwhile, had the Lions moving well in the second quarter despite suffering three sacks. On a third-and-10, Stafford threw a perfect pass to Jeremy Ross for a 59-yard touchdown, the longest catch of his career, to take a 10-3 lead with 6:19 left in the quarter.
Two drives later, after some questionable play-calling by the Jets to leave the Lions with 68 seconds and the ball near midfield, they scored in just 46 seconds with a 16-yard pass to rookie tight end Eric Ebron, the first touchdown of his career.
The Jets cut their deficit to 17-10 on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Eric Decker, but the Lions responded with their 7-minute and 32-second, 90-yard touchdown drive that finished with Stafford's run. Tate helped set up the touchdown with a 16-yard screen in which he easily maneuvered around cornerback Darrin Walls off the line.
"He beat two men; he beat loaded coverages," Ryan said of Tate. "He beat a lot of different things."
The Lions forced two turnovers in the fourth quarter, including Darius Slay's first career interception. On the next drive, safety James Ihedigbo sakced Smith and forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Darryl Tapp.
The Jets cut the deficit to 24-17 with 6:58 left on a 35-yard Chris Johnson touchdown run, but the Lions forced a three-and-out on their next drive before taking the ball back to run out the clock.
"This was a heck of a game for us," Caldwell said. "Guys played well, but I don't think it's as well as can play. I really don't."