The top five moments in Calvin Johnson’s Hall of Fame career

Detroit News

Nolan Bianchi
| The Detroit News

There was uncertainty as to whether Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson was going to make the Hall-of-Fame in his first turn on the ballot.

Now that the speculation is over, allow us to say: How?

The second-overall pick in 2007, Johnson survived the Detroit Lions experience for nine whole seasons, earning six Pro-Bowl visits, three first-team All-Pro selections, and setting NFL records for most receiving yards (1,964) in a single season and most consecutive 100-yard games (eight), all while playing for a franchise that didn’t win a playoff game during his career.

Whether it be spectacular jump-ball catches, exploding downfield after a catch with his 6-foot-5, 237-pound frame, or tying a league-high 12 receiving touchdowns on an 0-16 team in 2008, “Megatron” left no shortage of memorable moments behind in the Motor City. Here are the five best games of his NFL career.

5. Week 7, 2013 — Maybe put four guys on him next time?

Allow us to start in 2013 against the Cincinnati Bengals.

It’s third-and-18 at the 50. The Lions trail by 7 with 12:10 to go in the fourth quarter. With three defenders making a bee-line for Matthew Stafford, the Clyde to Johnson’s Bonnie pointed to the end zone, wound up, and let one go on the fly while charging toward the line of scrimmage.

The throw was into triple coverage, but that didn’t make much of a difference. Johnson went up and got it with ease, pulled it down, and tied the score for Detroit.

Yes, this ultimately was a loss. Yes, Johnson’s 155 receiving yards and two touchdowns on nine catches — while impressive — don’t even crack the top-10 for most productive games in his career. Yes, the Lions severely disappointed this season and failed to make the playoffs. 

But here’s the deal: None of that matters. Because for a moment of time in this football game, Johnson again convinced Detroit that he might be the greatest athlete to ever live, and when your trophy case is as empty as the one in Allen Park, those are really the only moments that matter.

4. Week 15, 2011 — From the jaws of defeat

The new-age Lions had a coming-out party in 2011, and most — if not all — of Detroit’s success on the offensive side of the ball can be attributed to Johnson and Stafford.

Johnson accumulated 16 touchdowns on a league-high 1,681 yards receiving, while Stafford became the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 5,000 yards in a season. Still, the main goal of reaching the playoffs came into jeopardy when the team dropped five out of seven after a 5-0 start.

Enter: Megatron.

In a Week 15 matchup at Oakland, the Lions fell behind 27-14 when Raiders linebacker Aaron Curry returned a fumble-sack of Stafford for a touchdown with 7:47 to play. 

Johnson’s first catch of the game had already gone for a 51-yard touchdown pass, and in crunch time, he came back for more.

Stafford went to Johnson five times for 99 yards on the final two drives, with Titus Young scoring to make it a 6-point game with 5:03 left, and the top dog Johnson pulling in the 6-yard reception to take a lead with 0:39 to go to go up 28-27.

Sebastian Janikowski’s 65-yard field-goal attempt as time expired was blocked to secure the victory. The Lions secured a wild-card berth the following week in San Diego, the franchise’s first since 1999.

3. Thanksgiving Day vs. Chicago (2014) and Philadelphia (2015)

It was tough to decide which of Calvin Johnson’s legendary Thanksgiving Day performances deserved a place on this list, but with the Lions’ history on the holiday being so … well, sad, and considering that these performances came in back-to-back years, why not include both?

As long as the Lions aren’t already out of the playoff hunt by this time (a rare occurrence in recent history), the Thanksgiving Day game sets the tone for the final month of the season: Are they pretenders or contenders?

And boy, did the Lions look like contenders in 2014. 

Johnson helped the Lions to a 24-14 halftime lead with two second-quarter touchdowns, and pulled in 11 catches for 146 yards as the Lions went on to defeat the Bears, 34-17.

One year later, Johnson was back at it again, albeit under different circumstances. The Lions this season were 4-7 heading into the Turkey Day matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles.

He only had 94 receiving yards, but tied a career-best three receiving touchdowns as Detroit blew out Philadelphia by a score of 45-14 in one of those, ‘We might not remember that season, but we sure do remember that Thanksgiving’ type of games.

Also, it produced one of the cooler images from Johnson’s career.

2. Breaking Jerry Rice’s record

The Lions hype train deflated in 2012 after a wild-card loss to the New Orleans Saints a year prior, but that didn’t stop Calvin from being Calvin.

Heading into a Week 16 matchup against his hometown Atlanta Falcons, Johnson needed 182 receiving yards over the final two games to break Jerry Rice’s single-season record.

Naturally, he only needed one game to do it.

Johnson smashed the record into pieces with his best game of the season, picking up 225 yards receiving and a touchdown to send the Detroit faithful — who’d stayed through the full 31-18 defeat — home happy with a 26-yard reception that broke the record with just under 3:00 to play.

1. Week 8, 2013 — “I can do whatever he can do”

What does it say about somebody when a 225-yard performance to break an NFL record that stood for 17 years isn’t the most impressive game of his career?

Well, for starters, it probably means he’s a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.

But it also speaks to the legend of the man known as Megatron, who for years had his talent underscored by the situation around him. Heading into a Week 8 matchup against Dallas in 2013, Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant provided a quote that will live on in infamy: “I can do whatever he can do.”

And hey, let’s be fair to Dez for just a second: Would you want a receiver on your team who didn’t think this was true? All intention aside, this is not really that aggressive of a quote. But it sure caught the attention of Lions fans, who took personally an attack on the one thing that never let them down.

Johnson did not let them down in this instance, either. He pulled down 14 catches for 329 yards — the most in any game since 1989 and second-most in league history — and a touchdown, proving once again he is the standard.

He came a yard short of adding a second touchdown on Detroit’s second-to-last play of the game, which Stafford capitalized on by rushing to the line, faking a spike, and diving over the goal line for the winning touchdown, the second-best moment of his own Lions career

It’s extremely fitting that these two Detroit football pillars, drafted a year apart, would each have a top-two moment of their career in the same game. And yet, for each player, the memories of this 31-30 win over the Cowboys live on for completely different reasons.

The most notable thing about this game for Johnson, though, is that despite a stat line that’s unmatched by nearly every receiver in NFL history, it didn’t really come as a surprise.

It was just another day of Calvin being Calvin. 

Nolan Bianchi is a freelace writer.

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