Making plays late? Avoiding big mistakes? Detroit Lions have us wondering, ‘who are these guys’?

Detroit Free Press

“We are one play away,” Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell kept saying.

“We are so close.”

It was hard to stomach — or even believe — as the Lions kept losing.

But you know what?

They got that play on Sunday.

More than once in a come-from-behind win.

“It was a good team win,” Campbell said on Monday about the Lions’ 31-30 victory over Chicago. “Fourth quarter, we did what we had to do to win that game, and guys played hard.”

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So what are we to make of this team? It’s understandable if you remain skeptical about Campbell and this team — I’m old enough to remember where this team was nine days ago after it had lost five straight.

But it’s also fair and reasonable to acknowledge something else — there have been encouraging signs over the last two games.

To be clear, nobody thought this Lions was going to make the playoffs this season. But we need to see improvement and progress. And that’s what these last two weeks have represented, especially IN the fourth quarter against Chicago. Because the Lions showed discipline, resiliency and made big plays in big moments.

If they could just continue to repeat that, well, then, they could have something seriously fun.

“Everything we’ve preached since really Day 1, we’re still preaching the same things,” Campbell said Monday. “It’s just about continuing to grow, gain your confidence and when you have an opportunity to make a play, we’ve got to make more plays than they did.”

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The best part of Lions’ win

If there was one truly encouraging sign against Chicago, it was that so many players made big-time plays, especially in crunch time.

It was Jared Goff hitting Tom Kennedy over the middle on a third-and-8. It was a perfect play call. A perfect placement. And it set up the go-ahead touchdown.

“Something we talked about all week was if we do get man coverage there, how do we want it approach it, and there was a couple different ways, and we decided on that one,” Goff told reporters after the game. “Tom ran a great route. The game was somewhat on the line there and found him open.”

The Bears still had a chance.

And you had to figure, this is where the Lions lose, right?

But there was Jeff Okudah playing perfect man-to-man coverage on Chase Claypool. The Bears had traded for Claypool for this moment. But he caught just one pass for 8 yards.

“I think he’s banked a lot of reps now,” Campbell said of Okudah. “He’s continuing to get better and it’s showing … man, he’s trending the right way.”

Still the Bears had a chance.

First-and-10 with less than two minutes to play: Incomplete pass

Second-and-10: Aidan Hutchinson came on the rush. Instead of flying by the quarterback, like we have seen so many times, he took a better, tighter route. Fields stepped up in the pocket, but Hutchinson beat his man, reached out his arm and snagged this elusive quarterback. His first sack of the day at the biggest moment.

This was growth.

“Just to see where he’s come from,” Campbell said. “He’s figuring it out, he is very instinctive.”

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Third-and-15: Fields dumped the ball off over the middle, but the Lions linebackers were in perfect position.

That’s coaching.

Then, on fourth down, the Lions had a truly great moment — a pure team moment, that mixed strong coverage and a relentless rush.

Fields went back to pass and Alex Anzalone came screaming through the pocket and just missed him. Julian Okwara came around the edge and had him. Until he didn’t. Fields squirmed free and Okwara fell to the ground. But Okwara got up — all effort and tenacity — accelerated and nabbed him.

The play seemed to last forever, but it was all effort and, yes, grit.

“Your legs are burning,” Campbell said. “You want to just throw your body in there to see if you can take a shot at one, which is not going to work.”

But it wasn’t done.

The Lions offense needed one more play. One more first down.

And with under a minute to play, on third-and 8, the left side of the line blocked down. Shane Zylstra sealed the edge. And right guard Evan Brown came pulling down the line, like an unleashed bulldozer. He smacked the defensive back and Jamaal Williams did the rest, breaking a tackle and carrying two Bears over the first down.

Change any of those plays — any of those moments in a long list of moments — and the Lions might have lost.

But they didn’t.

And that alone is encouraging.

Eliminating the mistakes

Now, here’s what the Lions didn’t do on Sunday.

Campbell didn’t make a boneheaded coaching decision that left you screaming at your TV. The Lions didn’t turn the ball over.

But there was something else.

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They didn’t have a rash of penalties. They had just two.

And that’s beyond encouraging, especially playing against a quarterback who can buy time in the pocket, putting stress on the secondary, the pass rush and — let’s face it — on everybody watching.

“Those guys are growing,” Campbell said. “I thought they competed, and there again, really from the front end to the back end, they knew what we had to do to try to slow this offense down, and they did it. And you’ve got to go the hard way to do it because it’s not easy. And it does, it tests your endurance. It tests your discipline and everything. Those guys, they handled it.”

Change any of those plays and the Lions might have lost.

Commit a penalty and they might have lost.

But they didn’t.

They were strong mentally. They were disciplined. And they made plays.

The kind of plays that had been missing.

Was it encouraging? Oh, heck yeah.

JEFF SEIDEL:One last magical day with my dad, a huge sports fan who planned everything, even in death

Contact Jeff Seidel: Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

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