Niyo: With stirring comeback, Lions may have gained more than a win

Detroit News

Chicago — From takeoff to landing, the flight home from to Detroit takes less than an hour.

But Sunday afternoon, for the first time in his career with the Lions, quarterback Jared Goff sounded genuinely disappointed about that.

“This is one where you wish the plane ride was a little bit longer,” he said, smiling. “But we’ll enjoy it.”

And why not? It’d been so long since the Lions had a road win to celebrate that the plane Sunday was half full of people who’d never even experienced something like this.

Sunday’s 31-30 comeback victory over the Bears at Soldier Field snapped a franchise road skid that covered 13 games dating to December 2020. Goff was still the quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams back then, and Dan Campbell was still an assistant on Sean Payton’s staff in New Orleans.

But there they were Sunday, Campbell pumping his fists and giving celebratory bear hugs on the sideline while Goff took a knee in the victory formation to seal the deal. And then here they were a half-hour later, trying to explain what it all meant.

“Man, I was proud of ’em,” said Campbell, whose young team has now won back-to-back games — both against NFC North opponents — for the first time in his brief tenure in Detroit. “It wasn’t the cleanest game. But we did what we had to do there in the fourth.”

And the fact that they did, and the way they did it — capping a 14-point fourth quarter comeback with an impressive 91-yard touchdown drive and then a dramatic defensive stand few of us saw coming — didn’t just count for something. It seemed to count for something more.

Confidence can be a force multiplier, you see. Especially in the NFL, where the margins are so thin and the wins are so hard to come by. And particularly for these Lions, who know all too well how easily one mistake can become two in the heat of the moment but here — on a freezing-cold Sunday at Solider Field — began to see how the other side lives.

“We’re learning how to finish,” said rookie Aidan Hutchinson, who notched one of two sacks of the Bears’ elusive quarterback, Justin Fields, on that final Chicago possession. “I think that’s the moral of the story.”

‘Making progress’

It’s certainly a new chapter, at least. And the way the Lions have broken from their usual script the last two weeks, torturing Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Ford Field and now stunning the Bears here with Detroit’s biggest fourth-quarter rally in nearly 30 years, it’s fair to wonder if they’re finally turning a corner.

“I think we’re making progress,” Hutchinson said. “It’s very encouraging, I think, for fans. And for us, watching ourselves do that and get it done, is huge.”

We’ll see what they can do with it from here, of course. A tougher road test awaits next week against the New York Giants, and then the Lions will host the Buffalo Bills on Thanksgiving.

Still, there were some encouraging signs Sunday that felt like mileposts by the final buzzer.

Goff wasn’t perfect in this one, but he made some terrific throws when they were needed late, none more so than the third-and-eight pass to Tom Kennedy that went for 44 yards on the winning drive. He finished the day 19-of-26 for 236 yards and talked about how “dialed in” offensive coordinator Ben Johnson’s gameplan was this week.

“Ben and I both said the same thing: It was perfect,” Goff said.

A concerted effort to feature receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown had something to do with that. It’s worth noting that all six of the Lions’ wins the last two years have come in games where St. Brown was targeted nine times or more. Sunday, he finished with 10 catches on 11 targets, good for 119 yards, as well as a nifty run to move the chains on the Lions’ opening drive of the game.

Defensively, the Lions got burned repeatedly by Fields on a variety of designed runs and scrambling plays. A week after setting an NFL record for a quarterback with 178 rushing yards against Miami, Fields racked up 147 on 13 carries in this one, including a franchise-best 67-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

But he also threw a pick-six to the Lions’ Jeff Okudah to jump-start Detroit’s comeback. And on Chicago’s final possession, with the Bears trailing by 1 and with three timeouts in their pocket, the Lions managed to keep Fields bottled up. He threw an incompletion on first down, then was sacked by Hutchinson on the next play. A short gain on a third-down pass play left Chicago facing fourth-and-8, where a trio of Lions defenders eventually scratched and clawed him to the ground for a sack that left him bloodied — Fields needed a couple stitches in his ear afterward — and effectively beaten.

Breaking their way

Yet there also were some subtle differences that Goff said he sensed as the game played out. Things that generally happen to the Lions — the things that make them the Lions, really — simply weren’t happening Sunday.

“Teams that win tend to get breaks or things go their way a little bit,” Goff said. “And that happened today for us on both sides of the ball.”

When was the last time the Lions went on the road and seemed to get all the calls from the officiating crew like they did Sunday, for instance? Chicago was flagged nine times for 86 yards in this one — three times on the Lions’ winning drive and another that nullified an interception of Goff — while the visitors were penalized just twice for 15 yards.

Consider that final margin as well, and how it came to be. After Fields’ 67-yard touchdown broke a 24-all tie with less than 10 minutes left, kicker Cairo Santos snap-hooked the PAT. And over on the Lions’ sideline, Goff had that funny feeling again.

“Sometimes it happens when you’re in the right place or doing the right things, you get those breaks,” he shrugged. “I mean, they miss a PAT. Again, like, was that because they missed a PAT or is that because our edge rushers were doing what they’re supposed to do? I don’t know. But typically the teams that have a lot of wins, those things start going their way more than not.”

The Lions, as we all know, are not a team that has a lot of wins. But they have three times as many wins now as they did to start November, and if you want to count them as lucky after this one, that’s fine. They think they know better.

It was only a couple of weeks ago, after another one-score loss for the Lions, that Campbell brought up one of his coaching mentor’s old axioms.

“Bill Parcells used to say, ‘The only way to win close games is win close games,’” a visibly frustrated Campbell said after Detroit had come up short — again — against Miami to extend a five-game losing streak.

Well, on Sunday, they won one. Another one, actually. And however you do the math, that’s progress.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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