EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Detroit Lions are .500. Don’t dismiss this ridiculous fact.
Not that you will, as you’re likely jumping and screaming, or maybe just exhaling, after they earned their most improbable win of the season, 20-17 over the New York Jets — the kind of win that has eluded this franchise for decades.
Finally, the other team missed a field goal. Finally, the other team threw a silly interception. Finally, the other team gave up a punt return TD. Finally, the other team missed one open receiver after another.
Finally, the Lions are at .500.
Which means the Lions have now won six of their past seven games, for one. Which means the playoffs are still out there, for another.
Teams don’t just start out 1-6 and get back to .500. It almost never happens. That alone suggests that something unexplainable is happening.
And it is.
No wonder they ran onto the field when the New York Jets’ Greg Zuerlein missed a 58-yard field goal as time expired.
Wait, the Lions didn’t run, they sprinted. And not just because it’s thrilling to win that way.
It’s also thrilling to win period, especially when you’re expected to win, and the Lions are now playing with expectations — positive expectations.
Crazy that a three-point victory over the Jets sets up the final three games as a race to the postseason. Next up is Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Carolina Panthers. The Chicago Bears come to town after that. Then a trip to Green Bay ends the regular season; that game could well be a playoff game for the Lions, assuming they can beat the Panthers and the Bears.
Neither game will be easy. Sunday’s game was a reminder of that. It’s hard to win in this league. Harder still on the road. Harder still against a good defense, when nothing is working offensively, when the final two minutes of the game arrive and you’re trailing by four and you haven’t scored a touchdown on offense yet.
That’s where Jared Goff and Ben Johnson and Dan Campbell were at the two-minute mark. Find a few inches, or go home. Find a few inches, or forget the playoffs and all this momentum.
Find a few inches, or start thinking about next season. (You, obviously, not the coaches and players. But you get the idea.)
Speaking of ideas, Johnson needed one more than ever. All game he’d been searching for something, anything, that might open up one of the best defenses in the league.
It was fourth-and-inches near midfield; in most games, a quarterback sneak or a running play would be the safest bet. But the Lions hadn’t been able to get push up the middle.
They huddled their minds and came up with a fake handoff, a fake look to the right by Goff, and a leak out to the opposite side by tight end Brock Wright, who was open in the flat with no one around. He then used that space — all that space — to run down the sideline, then cut back near the 10 and lumber into the end zone.
What a call. What a play. What a season.
Had they not converted and taken the lead and then held on when the Jets missed the field goal, the narrative would’ve been different, and familiar; we’d be parsing the decisions like we have so many times after losses: Why couldn’t the Lions beat Zach Wilson, enemy of his own teammates and quarterback to no one? Why did Campbell go for a field goal on the Lions’ previous offensive series, when he called for a 54-yard field goal when the Lions were up by three?
Going for it was risky, even with a little wind at Michael Badgley’s back. And although you can argue Campbell only risked 16 yards of field position, the Jets’ offensive struggles made those 16 yards feel a lot longer.
Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered; Wilson completed another blind heave down the field, this one to Garrett Wilson. Will Harris got turned around. Another story of the game.
Well, not so much Harris as the Lions’ secondary, which lost the ball several other times when Wilson chucked it down the field, most notably when he hit Jeff Smith for 50 yards with less than 30 seconds left in the first half.
Jeff Okudah got turned around and that spinning sack of potatoes set up a Jets’ field goal to tie the game at the half.
But Zach Wilson is Zach Wilson, and there is a reason he was benched. And in the end, while he played admirably and escaped from the pocket just enough to give the Lions trouble, the struggle of the game wasn’t their inability to stop him, but their difficulty in solving the Jets’ defense.
They hadn’t played a defense this good in a while. Since Dallas in late October, if you’re counting the weeks.
Where the Cowboys controlled the line of scrimmage, the Jets controlled the secondary, giving Goff few options down the field (except for once, when Jameson Williams got by everyone, and Goff underthrew him).
Everything else was screens and quick outs and dump offs in the middle five yards beyond the line of scrimmage, which means execution is critical, and the margin for error is nil.
At some point, to beat such a margin, a play must be made, a fourth-down design must be met, a game-on-the-line decision must be made. Campbell and his staff and this team nailed all three, and then got a break that another team didn’t make a crushing field goal, like so many before them against the Lions.
Things sure look like they are changing. The Lions are .500. The playoffs are out there.