Wojo: In surprising comeback win, Lions showed belief in Bevell

Detroit News

Bob Wojnowski
| The Detroit News

It’s funny what can happen when the heat is off and the energy is up. The Lions played as if unburdened, freed instead of fried. Different players made impacts and the defense actually made the biggest one, and the postgame celebration on the sideline and in the locker room was “amazing,” according to the new coach.

Darrell Bevell is an interim, which translates to “what do you have to lose?” It already looks like a better strategy than whatever Matt Patricia was trying to do. The Lions did a few things they hadn’t done in a while, beating the Bears 34-30 to snap a nine-game division losing streak. Instead of revisiting their nasty habit of blowing double-digit leads, they overcame one, winning after trailing by 10 or more for the first time since 2014.

In the grand scheme, what does it mean? Well, it means the Lions won’t draft as high as their fans would like, although they weren’t climbing into the top five anyhow. It means at 5-7, they’re technically still in the wildcard playoff chase, although they’re not loudly touting it. It means Matthew Stafford, who threw for 402 yards, now has 31 fourth-quarter comebacks, most in the NFL since he arrived in 2009.

More than anything, it shows the power of inspiration, and how the Lions have lacked it. For one up-and-down game, we saw all sides — an awful first half, followed by a stirring comeback. Perhaps we saw a glimpse of what could’ve been, or what could be in the future. The Lions are deeply flawed, obviously, and won’t have a direction until owner Sheila Ford Hamp finds a GM and a coach. But they do have a few pieces, and were missing key offensive weapons in receiver Kenny Golladay and running back D’Andre Swift.

Stafford’s time

If this is an audition for Bevell, it’s also one for Stafford, whose fate likely will be determined by the next regime. He remains an enduring, alluring enigma, throwing passes that make him so tantalizing, followed by missteps that hold him back. He’d tossed a crushing interception on a screen pass and the Lions trailed 30-20 late in the fourth quarter. But then he sliced through the Bears on a 96-yard drive, completing six straight passes capped by a 25-yard strike to Marvin Jones to cut the deficit to 30-27 with 2:18 left.

The defense that had done little to stop a Bears offense that was next to last in the league joined the redemption game too. Romeo Okwara dove past his blocker and knocked the ball loose from Mitchell Trubisky, and John Penisini fell on it at Chicago’s 7. Two plays later, Adrian Peterson dashed into the end zone, flipping the ball with a flourish after he scored with 1:37 left.

The Lions led 34-30 but the defense had one more test, and Reggie Ragland and Kevin Strong stuffed David Montgomery on fourth-and-1 from Detroit’s 20 with 11 seconds left. Those were sights for sore, ironic eyes, two defensive stops to win it, right after defensive guru Patricia departed.

Players leaped wildly for joy at the end, a vivid reminder that when the ugliness of the business lifts and the mood lightens, strange new things can happen.

 “It was great, guys were having a blast, it was crazy, down to the wire,” Stafford said. “Defense making some big plays, and I was happy for Bev, man. Happy for our team, excited to get a win.”

It’s no secret the players chafed under Patricia, whose primary solution in two-and-a-half years was to work more, demand more and rarely yield. It’s no secret players relished the chance to perform for Bevell, whose fun, upbeat personality injected enthusiasm into a team seemingly ready to pack it in.

In the week since Bevell replaced Patricia, meetings were shorter, practice-field music was louder and players were embracing the new atmosphere. Bevell said he was “jacked and excited” for his five-game audition, while surely understanding he’s a long, long shot to remain the coach. He wanted his players to be loose and free-wheeling, to “play with their hair on fire,” and sure enough, the Lions lit a fire that didn’t immediately need to be snuffed out.

Defensive coordinator Cory Undlin blitzed a bit more, and the Lions sacked Trubisky twice. Stafford winged it a bit more and ran the offense at a quicker tempo. He completed passes of 19-plus yards to six different receivers, led by Jones’ 116 yards. There was an aggressiveness and an effervescence, which didn’t produce an overall exceptional effort, just a satisfying one.

“Well, I wish you could be in this locker room right now,” Bevell told the media afterward. “It’s a-buzzing in there, and, yes, definitely I think those guys really truly believed in themselves all the way. … And that was really vintage Matthew Stafford. We kind of let him play today, and he just responded in a big way.”

Eight days ago, Patricia was fired, and now the Matt on the other side, Bears coach Matt Nagy, is in trouble, his job in jeopardy after a sixth straight loss. For a change, the Lions declined to play the downtrodden role and kept digging in. Adrian Peterson ran hard for 57 yards and two touchdowns. The offensive line was stellar, even with a converted defensive lineman, Matt Nelson, thrust in at right tackle to block Khalil Mack.

Pep in their step

On the Fox broadcast, Chris Spielman extolled the Lions’ refreshed look, and relayed how some players had felt “smothered” by the pressurized environment under Patricia. The energy grew as Bevell lightened schedules and loosened reins. There wasn’t much evidence of the change in a dreary first half, but it finally reappeared when the game was on the line. Whether it’s a Bevell effect, a Believe effect, or simply a Bounce-back effect, the Lions appreciated the renewed life.

“I think guys enjoyed being in the building this week, had a great time,” said Stafford, who awarded Bevell the game ball. “We still worked hard and got our work done, but it was just obviously a different message from a different guy. And not saying anything against Coach Patricia. It was just different, and sometimes that sparks the guys. He’s learning on the job as well and was just honest with us and told us to go out there and play with a bunch of energy, bunch of passion, bunch of fun.”

No, Bevell doesn’t have all the answers, and doesn’t pretend like he does. Sometimes a leader has to empower others, not just overpower them. No idea if this is anything more than a one-game blip, with Green Bay and other tough opponents coming up. But when the Lions go searching for their next GM and coach, it’s a reminder that leadership and motivation can take all forms, and the occasional hair fire isn’t a bad thing.


Twitter.: @bobwojnowski

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