Monday, December 20, 2010

Lions Buck All Trends in Win in Tampa


No, this isn’t a story about tax forms. It’s a story about a pro football team that finally has “W-2″ in the column under “Streak.”

The Detroit Lions have won two straight games, for the first time in over three years.

On November 11, 2007, the Lions went into Arizona to play the Cardinals. The Lions were 6-2, finally living the high life in Matt Millen’s seventh year at the helm. Fans started bantying about the “p” word—playoffs—which hadn’t been even remotely possible since the end of the 2000 season.

The Lions’ sixth win, the one that gave them their gaudy 6-2 record, was a 44-7 slaughter of the Denver Broncos at Ford Field. The win was punctuated by a pick six by defensive tackle Shaun “Big Baby” Rogers, of all people.

The fans at Ford Field laughed, danced, and had a good old time; Rogers’ rumble was the icy cold beer at the 19th hole following a great round of golf.

Life was good in LionsLand.

I don’t think anyone could have foreseen what was about to occur.

The Lions lost the next week in Arizona, 31-21, and that started a stretch of football that had rarely been seen in the NFL prior, and certainly never in Detroit.

That started a 26-game losing streak on the road. It started a 53-game run during which the Lions won just six games, including the 0-16 debacle of 2008. It started the end of coach Rod Marinelli’s brief tenure.

The Lions are still a bad football team, not to be confused (at all) with the league’s elite. But for one Sunday, it was their turn to whoop and holler and enjoy a thrilling victory—on another team’s home field.

The Lions, hosting the New York Jets several weeks prior, lost more than a football game, when they disintegrated late and blew a 10-point lead and lost in overtime.

They lost so much more than a football game—they lost a real chance to be taken seriously. They lost a chance to make the second half of their season meaningful. They lost a chance to shed the “same old Lions” label.

Conversely, the Lions did more than win a football game Sunday in Tampa, beating the Bucs 23-20 in overtime.

They did more than end that 26-game road losing streak.

Maybe now they have learned that they, too, can win a close football game. They, too, can drive for a game-tying field goal with less than two minutes remaining and devoid of timeouts—with their third string quarterback, no less.

The Lions, too, can make big plays—both on offense and defense—when it matters most.

Since imploding on Thanksgiving Day against the Patriots and players sniping afterward, the Lions have played three tough-minded football games in a row. They came up short against the Bears, but they dampened the playoff hopes of the Packers and the Bucs in successive weeks.

The Lions are playing hard, playing with pride, and playing to win—and their season has been over for about a month now, if not longer.

Say what you will about coach Jim Schwartz—and I have, several times. But Schwartz hasn’t lost this team—not even close—as had been suggested after some of the quotes spewed forth following the Patriots game.

The Lions are playing hard for Schwartz. When teams do that in the season’s final quarter, when all playoff hope is lost, that’s the opposite of an indictment on the coach. That’s a ringing endorsement.

Say what you will about quarterback Drew Stanton—and I have, several times. But Stanton has shown me a toughness—mentally and physically—that I didn’t know he possessed. I had been convinced that Stanton couldn’t play in the NFL. I was wrong.

Say what you will about left tackle Jeff Backus—and I have, several times. But Backus has quietly had a very good season, maybe the best of his 10-year career. And he has been one of the linchpins of a newfound running game that has immensely helped the Lions win the past two weeks.

Say what you will about the secondary—and I have, several times. But despite a breakdown on the Bucs’ first touchdown, the patchork unit held its own. Nathan Vasher, another who was picked off the scrap heap, played tough on Mike Williams during a crucial third-and-goal from the 12-yard line, swatting away a pass that could have put the Bucs up by four points.

Say what you will about the play calling—and I have, several times. But the Lions finally found out how grand life can be when they get the ball to Calvin Johnson. CJ had 10 catches, just about every one of them for a first down, it seemed, and he again showed why he’s a giant running pass routes among Lilliputians. Throwing to Johnson is like throwing to a man on stilts wearing a Velcro suit.

Say what you will about the officials—and I have, several times. But they came through with two big calls that were both correct, and that both went the Lions’ way: the no-call against Vasher, and the offensive pass interference call on Kellen Winslow, which negated a Bucs touchdown.

Say what you will about the Lions in general—and I have, too many times to count. But maybe, just maybe, this team is learning a little about themselves. Maybe they now have the confidence that they can win close games—and that nothing is destined to sabotage them, whether it’s the officials or themselves.

The Lions have won two straight, against teams that came into the game with records of 8-4 and 8-5, respectively. Two teams whose playoff hopes have been damaged thanks to losing to the Lions.

Two teams who have found out that despite another season of double-digit losses, the Lions are, in center Dominic Raiola’s words—”Not gonna be anyone’s punks anymore!”

The Miami Dolphins had better look out.

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