Niyo: Desperate Lions didn’t go to the desert to die

Detroit News

John Niyo
 
| The Detroit News

Glendale, Ariz. — They didn’t blow a fourth-quarter lead this time. 

But the Lions didn’t have one, either. Not until time had expired here in the desert, and the parched visitors finally got a taste of victory. 

It had been 337 days since the Lions last celebrated a win, so when Matt Prater’s kick sailed through the uprights Sunday, giving Detroit a 26-23 win and snapping an 11-game winless drought, the sense of relief was palpable.  

Even audible, as there were only a few hundred fans inside the Arizona Cardinals’ stadium — attendance was capped at 750 friends and family — and none of them had come to cheer on the Lions, who were hollering as they came streaming off the sideline to celebrate. 

For Prater, it was the 15th game-winner of his career. For Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, it was the 35th game-winning drive he’d led. But for Matt Patricia and his beleaguered team, this was the first significant step in the right direction that we’ve seen on the field in quite some time. 

And no matter how ugly it might’ve seemed at times, no matter how many opportunities both teams squandered Sunday afternoon, that counts for something.  

More: Justin Rogers’ Lions grades: Receivers, special teams, Jamie Collins shine in triumph

“I’m just excited for the guys,” Patricia said. “Excited for the players, excited for our fans back home, and certainly excited for Sheila for her first win as owner.” 

That’d be Sheila Ford Hamp, who officially took control of this franchise over the summer but had plenty of say last winter when ownership announced both Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn would get another chance this season.  

A chance the Lions looked to be throwing away as things began to unravel quickly this fall, following up a fourth-quarter collapse against the Bears in the opener with another meltdown last week at Lambeau Field. 

September pressure

Since the NFL went to its current eight-division format in 2002, 80 teams started 0-3 and just one — the Houston Texans in 2018 — has managed to go on to make the playoffs. And while no one without a Ford surname can say for sure what it’ll take for the current regime to stay beyond 2020, the supposed mandate delivered near the end of last season was that the Lions would be a “playoff contender” and “playing meaningful games in December.” Suffice to say, they couldn’t possibly hope to be that or do that if they went 0-for-September. 

So, yes, this one mattered just a little more than most. And how they won it mattered, too.  

The Lions’ much-maligned defense came up with three interceptions of the Cardinals’ electrifying young quarterback, Kyler Murray, and then came up with some key stops late in the game to give Stafford and the offense a chance to win it. 

“You give that quarterback, who’s a Pro Bowl player, the ball last,” said Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, “he’s going to beat you.” 

Stafford did just that, proving turnabout is fair play, perhaps. But how’s this for a turnaround in the end? The Cardinals didn’t punt once in the first three quarters — the three interceptions obviously did some damage there — yet the Lions forced them to do it twice in the final 15 minutes, limiting Arizona to just eight offensive plays and less than 3 minutes of possession time in the fourth quarter. 

“Honestly, we probably should’ve scored 40 there,” admitted Stafford, who finished 22-of-31 for 270 yards with a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions. “But a chance to end the game on offense is what I want. It’s what we all practice for, a chance to go out there at the end of it and win it. …I wasn’t gonna let that slip through my fingers.” 

Even when it seemed like it might, after a 52-yard bomb to Marvin Hall that would’ve given the Lions first-and-goal at the 1 was called back by a holding penalty on Halapoulivaati Vaitai with just under 2 minutes to play.  

More: Fox’s Terry Bradshaw: Lions’ Bob Quinn should be fired, Matt Patricia has ‘gotta go’

Stafford shrugged that off, and after T.J. Hockenson drew a defensive pass-interference call on the next play, the veteran quarterback found Kenny Golladay — his return from injury made a huge difference Sunday — and then Marvin Jones Jr., who shook off a tackle for another first down to set up Prater’s final kick.  

One Stafford knew was good before the snap. 

“He’s as clutch as they get,” Stafford said of Prater. “He loves that moment. That moment has Matt Prater written all over it.” 

Imperfect but good enough

This win, though, had desperation written all over it. And if the Lions didn’t let on during the week just how urgent this game was publicly, they did so behind closed doors. Safety Duron Harmon, a key free-agent pickup from New England this offseason, said the Lions’ veteran leaders went out of their way to ratchet up the energy level in practice this week, while emphasizing the importance of playing through the emotional swings that seem even more dramatic in a fan-less gameday environment. 

“Nothing was perfect today, but what we did was we finished, we fought,” said Harmon, who had one interception but told Patricia after the game he owed him one for another that he nearly snagged in the second half. “Throughout the whole game, we said we weren’t gonna go in the tank. When something bad happened, we weren’t gonna let it deter us from what we wanted to do, and that’s to win.” 

The game plan proved to be a winner, too, as the Lions were determined to control the clock on offense and then limit the big plays on the other side of the ball while trying to keep pace with the NFL’s most frenetic offense. Arizona ran just 63 plays Sunday, a dozen below their season average, and only three went for 20-plus yards.

Still, at times, the Lions’ defense did appear ready to tilt, and rookie cornerback Jeff Okudah even laughed afterward about having to tap out a couple times, leaving the game briefly to get oxygen on the bench at one point in the second half. 

But Okudah also could point to a game-altering interception he made, one of the trio the Lions snagged Sunday after failing to force a single turnover in their first two losses. In fact, this was the first game in Patricia’s entire tenure in Detroit where the Lions intercepted more than one pass. 

“It was a high-emotion game,” said Okudah, who had a rough debut against Green Bay’s Davante Adams last week and was asked to defend another All-Pro in DeAndre Hopkins on Sunday. “For me personally, I was tired of being disrespected. And I think the whole defense was tired of being disrespected. The whole team was tired of being disrespected.  

“So this is a game we took personally. We knew that we had to get back on track in the win column. We put in a lot of work, and we knew eventually that it was gonna show up.” 

That they waited this long for it to show up may yet prove to be their undoing this season. But that they managed to grab this one in the end at least gives them a chance, not to mention some much-needed validation for all the work that hadn’t produced any results where they mattered most. 

“This is our first win,” Harmon said. “It’s the third game. We haven’t arrived. We haven’t even come close to being as good as we can be.” 

But if they proved anything Sunday, it’s that maybe — just maybe — things aren’t as bad as they looked, either.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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