Stafford, Prater keep us tuned to the Lions until the improbable finish
November 7, 2016
Stafford, Prater keep us tuned to the
Lions until the improbable finish
By KEITH GAVE
I confess: When Minnesota back Rhett Ellison plunged into the end zone with 23 seconds left in Sunday’s game, I shrugged my shoulders thinking that here was another game out of how many – HOW MANY? – that the Lions should have won. But didn’t.
Silly, cynical me. I had forgotten these 2016 Lions go about their business a little differently. They seem to relish these challenges, not fold beneath them. But 23 seconds? Seriously? To turn a 16-13 deficit into a 22-16 overtime victory?
It’s cliché in sports to suggest that we’d rather be lucky than good, but has it occurred to anyone yet that the Lions just may be both?
We know from decades of watching Lions football that when you have an elite quarterback and a kicker with a big leg, all things are possible in the closing seconds of a football game. But now it’s the Lions with both in gun-slinging Matthew Stafford and cold-blooded Matt Prater.
And they’re also blessed with a defense that manages to keep every game close enough to win, and several playmaking options for Stafford on the offensive side – Theo Riddick, Golden Tate and Eric Ebron, all of whom played starring support roles Sunday.
In just three plays, including a 27-yard pass over the middle to Andre Roberts on a second-and-2 and a spiked pass to stop the clock, Stafford had the Lions down to the Minnesota 40-yard line. With two seconds remaining, Prater trotted onto the field and calmly kicked a 58-yard game-tying field goal, silencing the crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium guilty of premature celebration.
Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter – a name almost as fun to type as it is to say out loud – continued to call the right plays at the right time. But it was the team captains with the best call of the game, taking tails on the overtime coin flip. Tails it was. Lions took the OT kickoff and, with momentum now on their side, Stafford went back to work.
An 11-play drive starting way back at Detroit’s 13-yard line included Riddick grinding out some tough yards on the ground, Ebron turning a short reception over the middle into a 23-yard gain, and Tate catching three passes for a total of 48 yards, the prettiest of which was a 28-yarder in which he tapped-danced along the sidelines, eluded not one but two tacklers and ended it with a high-jump roll through the air across the goal line for the winning points.
Lucky? Absolutely. Good? You’re damned right. And the Lions, 5-4, should feel good about themselves heading into their bye week.
The win, combined with Green Bay’s loss at home tin Indianapolis, moved Detroit into second place in the NFC North, a half-game behind the Vikings (5-3), who have lost three straight, and Green Bay (4-4). The Lions are just a half-game back of Washington (4-3-1) for the second wildcard spot in the NFC.
That’s not such crazy talk, though it is a bit surprising for a team that started the season 1-3. On their return from the bye, the Lions play three of their next four games at Ford Field. Only three of their final seven games are against teams with winning records. But more than likely it will come down to the final three games of the season – at New York against the Giants (5-3), at Dallas (7-1) and the series finale on New Year’s Day, when Green Bay visits.
Because of Stafford and Prater, you have to like the Lions’ chances. Or at least respect them.
While Stafford’s deciding toss to Tate was his first game-winning touchdown pass in overtime, he now has six career game-winning TD passes with 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter or in overtime. Sunday’s winning drive was the 25th – the fifth in five victories this years – in his career when his team trailed or was tied in the fourth quarter or in overtime.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Stafford became the first quarterback since the 1970 merger to lead his team to five game-winning drives in each of his team’s first five wins of the season. With 25 career game-winning drives, Stafford tied QB Peyton Manning and QB Jake Plummer (25) for the second-most game-winning drives by a player in his first eight seasons.
Want more? OK. Since Jim Caldwell became the Lions head coach in 2014, Stafford leads the NFL with 13 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. Stafford’s 219 passing yards at Minnesota pushed him past QB Joe Flacco (28,322) for the fifth-most passing yards in a player’s first eight seasons. In his eight seasons, Stafford has 28,349 yards.
Stafford also moved past Flacco (2,479) for the fifth-most pass completions by a quarterback in his first eight seasons. His 23 completions at Minnesota give him 2,496 for his career. With two touchdown passes at Minnesota, he surpassed Hall of Fame QB Jim Kelly for the seventh-most passing touchdowns by a player in his first eight seasons. He also became the seventh player in League history with 180-plus TD passes in a player’s first eight seasons.
That’s pretty good company. But Prater keeps even more exclusive company.
His 58-yard at the end of regulation was the second-longest game-tying field goal in the final minute of the fourth quarter in NFL history; Prater also holds the record for the longest such field goal (59 yards on Dec. 11, 2011 with Denver against Chicago). In his career, Prater is now 23 of 23 on game-tying or go-ahead field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter or overtime.
And by making two 50-yard field goals at Minnesota, Prater now has 33 career 50-yard field goals and moved past K Adam Vinatieri for eighth on the NFL’s list all-time.
Bottom line: However you feel about the NFL’s version of the Chicago Cubs, the Lions are making it increasingly harder to switch off the TV and get back to the yard work. They’re compelling us to watch to the very end, often with stunning, pleasant results. Who knew?