By Ashley Dunkak
FORD FIELD (CBS DETROIT) – The Detroit Lions won another game in dramatic fashion Sunday, defeating the red-hot Miami Dolphins, 20-16, on a touchdown pass with 36 seconds remaining. Linebacker DeAndre Levy joked that the late-game drama nearly sent him into cardiac arrest, while wide receiver Calvin Johnson said with a smile that no one enjoys stress.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford had a more enthusiastic take on the crunch-time minutes.
“I just have a good time in them,” Stafford said, grinning. “It’s one of those unique situations in sports where everybody’s kind of backs against the wall, and it’s a total team thing. It’s not an individual thing. You’ve got to rely on everybody, and everybody stepped up. There’s no better feeling than when you come out of that drive successful, as a team, as an offense, so obviously you fight tooth and nail for that feeling.
“Obviously we’d love to be running four-minute offense and taking knees at the end of games,” Stafford noted, “but we’ll take them how we can get them.”
To say the 26-year-old quarterback has the confidence of his teammates would be an understatement. Center Dominic Raiola confirmed Stafford’s sentiments about enjoying chances to win games with time running out.
“This is not for you if you don’t like it,” Raiola said. “If you’re losing and you don’t want to be in that position, this is not the business for you.”
Clearly, Stafford likes it. The Lions trailed, 16-13, when they got the ball with 3:13 to play, and Stafford proceeded to lead an 11-play, 74-yard drive that culminated in a third-down sidearm strike to running back Theo Riddick.
“The guy gets in his mind that he’s going to go win the game, and that’s what he does,” Johnson said. “He’s the most accurate quarterback, to me, in the league. He can put the ball wherever he needs to put it, he helps us out a ton, and we just try to make plays for him.”
Lions head coach Jim Caldwell said Stafford showed tremendous poise Sunday, just as he has in recent weeks, as Detroit continues to master the art of the comeback.
“You don’t find many guys that can handle what he does,” Caldwell said. “There’s a lot of pressure out there in those situations. There’s a lot on the line, and every single time he goes out there and attacks the exact same way. He never gets flustered, he never loses his poise, he’s got good focus, and in that time, you just listen to him talking, he’s got a crystallized thought process going all the time. We certainly appreciate that, and that’s why he’s able to bring you back when most teams probably would falter.”
Stafford’s sidearm throws have been a source of consternation for some, but Caldwell said that since the motion works for Stafford, he will not try to change it.
“When you talk about passers, they’ve developed their rhythm to throw how they throw from the time they were in seventh and eighth grade,” Caldwell said. “There are certain things that they’re going to do; it’s just part of who they are. And Matthew has an uncanny ability to throw a little sidearm sometimes, but he’s extremely accurate. That throw he made to Calvin on the right-hand side down the field was a sidearm throw, and then obviously the touchdown pass moving to his left, so those are the things you can waste a lot of time trying to adjust something on a guy who does it well.
“You may not like it all the time, but nevertheless, I think for the most part, when you add it up, he’s pretty doggone good,” Caldwell concluded.
As is usually the case when a team gets a win at the wire, the Lions missed some opportunities to put the game away earlier. With Detroit leading, 10-0, safety James Ihedigbo returned an interception 70 yards and set up the Detroit offense in the red zone, but the Lions came away with no points. With the Lions leading, 10-3, at the beginning of the third quarter, defensive end Ezekiel Ansah forced a fumble, but the Lions again failed to score.
Johnson and Stafford attributed some of the team’s offensive struggles to their own mistakes – the Lions were flagged 10 times for 98 yards – rather than anything Miami did.
“The faster we play, the better we’re going to play,” Stafford said. “We had too many penalties today, too many sacks, lost-yardage plays where we got behind the sticks, and that’s tough. It slows the pace of the game down, it slows – it’s tough for the play caller. You get second and 20-something, it’s tough.”
Such shortcomings can deflate a team, but they did not have that effect on Detroit.
“We’ve got to put the fire out, but at the end of the game, we’re going to try to win the game any way possible,” Raiola said. “When it’s 16-13 we can’t say, ‘Damn, we should have put that fire out early.’ We’ve still got to continue to strive to get the score, get something, get the win, and we can fix [the problems] later. We had a chance to build that lead early, and we let it get away. We let them hang around, hang around, hang around, and it’s something we’ve got to stop.”
In the meantime, Stafford does not necessarily mind the pressure of orchestrating a late-game rally.
“I just love that feeling,” Stafford said. “It’s a good feeling as a quarterback to have the ball in your hands at the end of the game, everybody looking to you to make a play, and you’re not going to win the game every time, but we’ve been very successful this year, as a team, as an offense, in those situations.”
Caldwell often mentions the truism that quarterbacks get too much credit when a team wins and too much blame when it loses. Indeed, while Stafford is certainly the most visible hero of Detroit’s string of comebacks, he is hardly the only one. The defense played incredibly well again Sunday, allowing just 222 yards of offense and coming through with drive-killing takeaways. The special teams unit pulled off a fake punt that kept a drive alive. Johnson and fellow wide receiver Golden Tate combined for 222 receiving yards, and running back Joique Bell made several lengthy, punishing runs.
There were rough patches Sunday, but the bottom line is that the Lions have a record of 7-2.
“We’re doing some good things, probably not as consistently as we’d like, but overall you’ve got to say this team, they’ve shown, week in and week out up to this point, they’ll play you all the way to the end of the ball game, 60 minutes,” Caldwell said. “Whatever it takes, they’re willing to give it.”