Detroit — After winning for a second straight game with coach Jim Caldwell’s desired formula, the what-ifs for the Lions will begin in earnest.
But, the Lions were glad to celebrate again Sunday after an 18-13 win over the Raiders at Ford Field in a game in which a swarming defense limited a high-powered Oakland offense to just 214 yards.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford scored the game-winning touchdown with his feet, defensive end Ezekiel Ansah gave the defense a safety and the Lions (3-7) are now 2-0 in the second half.
“We just get a couple wins and everything seems like we can do whatever we want,” right guard Larry Warford said. “We should’ve been playing like this earlier because we have all the talent in the world. I feel like we’re just playing up to our potential.”
And the Lions hope to continue playing as they did Sunday, regardless of how it impacts where they’ll pick in the 2016 draft.
After firing president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew two weeks ago, owner and chairwoman Martha Firestone Ford expressed a desire for the team to try to keep winning despite the 1-7 start.
Ford, flanked by her daughter Sheila Ford Hamp and other family members, congratulated coach Jim Caldwell and interim GM Sheldon White after the game. Now, the Lions will try to win on Thanksgiving for the third year in a row against an Eagles team that suffered a blowout loss, 45-17, at home to the Buccaneers.
And as much as Ford’s decisions might have galvanized the team, Stafford said it’d be wrong to read too much into the effects of the mid-season changes.
“We’re just playing better football,” he said.
Stafford finished 22-of-35 for 282 yards with 31 rushing yards and a touchdown. Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and Theo Riddick each eclipsed 70 receiving yards for the diverse Lions attack.
Neither team had a turnover in the game, and the Lions won three of the four quarters, though the devastating third quarter put the game in question.
For Oakland (4-6), quarterback Derek Carr was inconsistent and finished 13-of-25 for 169 yards. He didn’t have much help from the run game — 2.4 yards per carry — and Lions cornerback Darius Slay masterfully covered Carr’s top target Amari Cooper (one catch for 4 yards).
The Lions defense stole the show in the first half, completing shutting down the Raiders.
Oakland gained just 91 yards in the first two quarters and converted just one of five third downs as Detroit had a 9-0 lead at the break.
Meanwhile, the Lions gained 218 yards and moved the ball well for most of the opening half. However, their three productive drives all stalled for varying reasons, forcing the Lions to settle for three Matt Prater field goals from 29, 41 and 51 yards.
In addition to Slay's excellent coverage on Cooper, rookie Quandre Diggs, who played extensively in the slot with Josh Wilson on injured reserve, made several nice plays, too.
But, as has been the case for much of the season, the Lions couldn’t maintain their strong effort for the entire game.
The Lions gave up a 43-yard pass to receiver Seth Roberts on the first play of the second half. Several plays later — thanks in part to a holding penalty on Lions cornerback Nevin Lawson that negated an interception by Diggs — Oakland scored on a 1-yard run by Latavius Murray, cutting the Lions’ lead to 9-7 with 10:24 left in the third quarter.
The Lions gained just six yards on their first two drives of the second half, earning their only first down by an Oakland penalty.
Conversely, the Raiders scored on each of their three third-quarter drives as Sebastian Janikowski made field goals of 48 and 56 yards, with the latter giving Oakland a 13-9 lead with 15 seconds left in the third quarter.
Once the third quarter ended, the Lions went back to playing well, particularly on defense.
On the next drive, the Lions scored on a nine-play, 80-yard drive, thanks largely to Stafford’s heads-up running. He scrambled for 18 yards to move the Lions to the Oakland 5. Then, he gained the remaining 5 yards on a draw to give the Lions a 16-13 lead with 11:04 left in the fourth quarter.
After a three-and-out by both teams, the Lions defense got involved in the scoring. A first-down holding on Raiders tight end Clive Walford just outside the end zone moved Oakland back to the 4. On third down, left tackle Donald Penn held Ansah in the end zone to give the Lions their first safety of the season.
With an 18-13 lead with 7:22 remaining, the Lions put together an impressive drive to run out the rest of the time and secure the victory.
The Lions have played their best football of the year the past two weeks and Caldwell credited the players for avoiding distractions amid the front-office firings. The team fired three assistant coaches a month ago, too.
“I think we have a pretty special group,” Caldwell said.
But for the players, maintaining focus isn’t hard because the goal each week hasn’t changed — win.
“We just band together, we put our heads down and we go,” Stafford said. “There’s nothing else you can do.”