Detroit — It wasn’t easy, at least not as easy as you would have hoped given the opponent, but the Lions’ shook off a sluggish start and surged past the winless Cleveland Browns down the stretch for a 38-24 victory at Ford Field on Sunday.
The company line for the Lions is a win is a win, regardless of the competition.
“I don’t care who we’re playing, in this league, a victory is hard to get,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “You can downplay it and all that kind of stuff, but I’m just telling you that there are no easy wins in this league. They’re all difficult, so I’m glad our guys measured up.”
The Browns jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead in the opening quarter thanks to a pair of defensive breakdowns by cornerback Nevin Lawson.
BOX SCORE: Lions 38, Browns 24
After taking over across midfield on their opening possession, Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer connected with Sammie Coates for a 38-yard completion down the left sideline over Lawson. The Lions managed to tighten up in the red zone following the catch, limiting the visitors to a 23-yard field goal.
The Lions (5-4) coughed it right back over to the Browns (0-9) three plays into their next possession when quarterback Matthew Stafford, feeling heat in the pocket, threw the ball directly to Browns linebacker Jamie Collins.
Three plays later, from Detroit’s 19-yard line, Kizer connected with Kenny Britt on a short completion. The receiver danced around a diving tackle attempt by Lawson and cruised into the end zone to extend the lead to 10, following the extra point.
The Lions stopped the bleeding with a pair of big gains on the ground.
Ameer Abdullah, running behind returning left tackle Taylor Decker, exploded into the second level untouched for a gain of 20. Two plays later, taking advantage of misdirection created by Jamal Agnew motioning across the formation from right to left, Theo Riddick popped free around the right edge for 21 yards. That set up a 46-yard field goal by Matt Prater.
On the ensuing possession, the Browns threatened again after converting a fourth down near midfield, but the series was derailed by three consecutive penalties.
After a punt pinned the Lions deep in their own territory, the offense put together an impressive 10-play, 90-yard drive to knot it up. Abdullah and Riddick stated things off with a pair of carries netting 29 yards and Golden Tate snagged a low rocket from Stafford in traffic for a 35-yard chunk. Facing third-and-8 in the red zone, Stafford scrambled and dove for the conversion and Abdullah capped the series with an 8-yard scoring run up the middle.
“I told our backs and our guys up front, they kept us in it in the first half,” Stafford said. “We were having to adjust to some different looks in the passing game and some different coverages that we didn’t expect to see. Being able to hand the ball off and get 20 and 10 (yards), whatever it was, and get points out of those drives, it was huge. It was leaning on that run game early was great for us.”
More:Lions’ Jim Caldwell admits to ‘poor job’ on challenge
The two teams traded punts, before Lawson got some redemption for his early blunders. On a first-down play, the cornerback came on a blitz and delivered a big hit on Kizer. Then, on second down, stripped a short completion out of the hands of tight end Seth DeValve, scooped it up and returned it 44 yards for the score.
“I’m blessed that I got encouraging coaches, encouraging players and I’m thankful for my position coach,” Lawson said. “You know, I just remember him telling me after that first quarter, ‘Man, don’t worry about that. There’s a bunch of plays to be made out there.’ I just went out there and kept telling myself, ‘Man, keep fighting. The team needs you. Make a play.’”
The Browns had an opportunity to tie it up at the half, but after working it down to the 2-yard line, a completed pass on a fade to tight end David Njoku was ruled out of bounds and a Kizer sneak was stuffed as the clock ran out before the Browns could set up to run another play.
“That’s on me,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said. “We don’t need to go into it. I need to do a better job with the offensive unit. It’s that simple. I’m taking the fall on everything.”
The Lions kept pace in the NFC North race with a hard-fought win over the winless Browns.
Cleveland made up for the missed opportunity coming out of the locker room to start the third quarter, churning out 70 rushing yards on an eight-play, 85-yard touchdown drive. Running back Isaiah Crowell gained 45 yards on four carries on the series, bouncing around the left edge for a six-yard touchdown.
On their next possession, the Browns drove 80 yards on 10 plays for the go-ahead touchdown. Kizer converted an early third-and-8 by scrambling for 20 yards around the right edge, before finding DeValve for 35 yards between layers in the Lions’ zone defense to the 1-yard line. Two plays later, Kizer drove it in on a sneak, putting the Browns up, 24-17.
“I don’t know if there was a drive out there, that first half, where we didn’t feel as if we had the lead and were dictating where our offense was going,” Kizer said. “I think that we were going to come back with the same mentality and the same confidence and kept that rhythm going.”
The Lions wasted little time responding, taking four plays to tie it again. A 50-yard completion to rookie receiver Kenny Golladay, playing in his first game since Week 3, put the Lions into the red zone. Two plays later, Stafford found Riddick, uncovered out of the backfield, for an easy 8-yard score.
2017 LIONS SCHEDULE
The Browns’ chances to score their first win of the season faded quickly at the end of the third quarter when Kizer was knocked from the game after taking a massive hit from Quandre Diggs, injuring the rookie quarterback’s ribs. Replacement Cody Kessler was sacked on his first snap, leading to the Browns punting the ball back to the Lions.
“I think anytime anybody’s starting quarterback comes out, the air comes out,” Jackson said. “Let’s be honest, I mean, that’s the way it happens sometimes. That’s OK. You can say it.”
Stafford connected on third-down throws to Tate and running back Dwayne Washington, steering the Lions back into Browns’ territory, and on third-and-3 from the 29, Stafford dropped a perfect pass to Eric Ebron down the left sideline for a go-ahead touchdown with 10:52 remaining.
“Just man-to-man coverage across the board,” Stafford said. “They were trying to bring a little man-pressure up the middle, not a whole lot of help from the post safety on Ebron’s side of the ball. He ran a nice route and I threw like a punt, that was not spinning real pretty, but it ended up in a good spot.”
As Cleveland’s offense continued to sputter, the Lions finally put the pesky Browns away.
Set up by a 29-yard punt return by Jamal Agnew, Stafford audibled when the Browns’ showed an eight-man front, connecting with Tate on a short screen. The receiver did the rest, accelerating through the traffic 40 yards for a touchdown.
Kizer returned on the Browns' final possession and drove the Cleveland offense into the red zone in the closing minutes, but the threat was ended when cornerback Darius Slay intercepted a pass in the end zone.
It was Slay’s team-leading fourth pick of the season.
Stafford finished 17-of-26 for 250 yards, three touchdowns and the early interception. Tate led all receivers with six catches for 97 yards. And Abdullah paced the Lions with 52 yards on 11 carries.
With the victory, the Lions kept pace in the NFC North, staying two games back of the Minnesota Vikings (7-2), who dumped Washington on the road, 38-30.
Detroit goes back on the road to face Chicago next week. The Bears (3-6) lost the Packers (5-4) on Sunday, 23-16.