Wojo: Lions keep finding ways, looking more and more like a playoff team

Detroit News

With every clutch pass, every crunching sack and every Dan Campbell gamble, the Lions are killing one narrative and forging a new one. They have worked their way smack into the middle of the playoff race, looking very much like a team that knows it belongs.

Way back when — you know, way back to two months ago — this was the type of game the Lions would lose. Now they keep finding a way, any which way, no matter the obstacle. The Lions and Jets were locked in a tense, sloppy slugfest, with playoff implications for both. And it was the Lions, on the road, against the No. 3 defensive team in the league, who wouldn’t be denied, edging the Jets 20-17 Sunday.

With six victories in seven games, the Lions are 7-7, more amazing because there’s nothing illusionary about it, winning tight games and blowouts, at home and on the road. They’re chasing their first playoff berth in six years, with three games remaining against teams with losing records (Carolina, Chicago, Green Bay). Their winning formula is getting easier and easier to recognize — physical running, a punishing pass rush and a quarterback rapidly growing into a leading role. Jared Goff looks comfortable and self-assured, emboldened by Campbell’s confidence in him, and nowhere was it more evident than on the play that won the game.

Trailing 17-13 and facing fourth-and-inches at their own 49 with two minutes left, the Lions leaned on their chain of trust. Campbell trusted offensive coordinator Ben Johnson to make the bold call, and Johnson trusted Goff to make the clutch play. A run up the middle that we’ve seen stopped before? Nah. The Lions take more risks than almost any team in the league, but they’re generally calculated and purposeful, if not always successful. Goff faked a handoff, fired the ball to wide-open tight end Brock Wright, and he rumbled 51 yards for the winning touchdown.

It was a tough, grinding victory, and this time of year, that’s how you have to win.

“I wasn’t playing my best ball in the second half, and I felt like here’s a drive where we can make up for all we’d lost previously,” Goff said. “Brock made a great play and I was fired up, and our whole team was fired up.”

Oh, there were tense moments still ahead, as embattled Jets quarterback Zach Wilson completed a couple of deep passes on the final drive. But this time it was the other team, not the Lions, who committed the gaffes. Jets coach Robert Saleh — the Dearborn native who interviewed for the Lions job — inexplicably didn’t use any of his three timeouts until only 19 seconds remained. With one second left, the Jets’ Greg Zuerlein tried a desperation 58-yard field goal that didn’t come close.

Stepping up

This was a ragged, rugged game and the Lions squandered a few chances, getting stuffed at the goal line early and later losing a touchdown because of a holding penalty. But they’ve found other ways, and how many different players keep popping up during this hot streak? Kalif Raymond returned a punt 47 yards for the first touchdown of the game. Romeo Okwara, just recovered from an Achilles injury, collected a pair of sacks. Rookie sixth-round pick James Houston added a sack and has an astounding five in four games.

In cold, tight December games, this is how good teams prevail. Goff was 23-for-38 for 252 yards and didn’t commit a turnover, and now has thrown 219 consecutive passes without an interception. The Lions have committed only three turnovers in their 6-1 streak, while forcing 11 by the opposition, confirming it’s easier to beat teams when you don’t beat yourselves.

“We wouldn’t have won that game earlier in the year, or last year,” Campbell said. “We would’ve struggled to get through that one. I think what it says is, we are maturing, we are growing. There was never any doubt to us losing. They were in it, they were on it. The maturity is this — they became more disciplined as it got tighter.”

No longer ‘Same Old Lions’

Historically, the Lions have been victimized so often by bad breaks, bad coaching, bizarre penalties and crushing last-second plays, there’s a phrase for it. “Same Old Lions” is embedded in Detroit’s football culture, but it’s actually, legitimately becoming outdated. The easiest path is to play the victim role, instead of playing harder and coaching smarter. The Lions got breaks in this game, with Jets star defensive tackle Quinnen Williams a late scratch because of a calf injury. They also got to face Wilson, an erratic young quarterback who was benched for three games but was back because of a rib injury to starter Mike White.

The Lions still don’t have much margin for error. No team that starts 1-6 ever does. The only one to rise from 1-6 to a playoff berth was the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals. Statistical projections like FiveThirtyEight.com peg the Lions’ chances anywhere from 42% to 50%. If they win their last three and finish 10-7, it shoots up near 90%.

From where they were — 3-13-1 a year ago — to where they are now is fairly unfathomable. But if you’d looked closely, you could’ve seen signs of something stirring. GM Brad Holmes put together top-notch back-to-back draft classes and young players have started rising, from the highly touted (No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson) to the less-touted such as Houston.

“I was just talking to Brad and I said right now, at this moment, we’re not losers anymore,” Campbell said. “We’re not winners, but we’re not losers either. We’re even at 7-7. We fought our way back into this. …  We had to find another way to win, and every time that happens, you just continue to grow, and continue to figure things out. We didn’t play our cleanest game, we really didn’t. But in critical moments we made the plays we had to win the game; that’s what winning teams do.”

And this is what the NFL is about, in case we’d forgotten around here. Most games are tight. You take any victory any way you can get it, and it’ll be the same on Saturday in Carolina, where the Panthers are 5-9 but playing hard for interim coach Steve Wilks.

One play or one late drive often decides the outcome. On the Jets’ final possession, Okwara and John Cominsky sacked Wilson, as the Lions finished it off with force. They have 18 sacks in their seven-game streak, playing with the fiery passion Campbell has preached since he arrived. It took a while, but this is what he envisioned, a team fighting for the playoffs. No guarantee the Lions will get in, but they finally have some of the necessary ingredients to do it.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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