PHILADELPHIA -- I'll admit it. They fooled me again. Yep, I wrote off the Detroit Lions when their deficit grew to 10 points Sunday with 5 minutes, 18 seconds remaining at Lincoln Financial Field. I had this game marked as a victory for the Philadelphia Eagles and was already researching the history of 1-4 teams -- a cardinal sin in the Matthew Stafford Era.
"We're never out of any game," as coach Jim Schwartz summed it up.
Stafford led the Lions to three scores in the final 9:18 on this particular afternoon, flipping that deficit into a 26-23 overtime victory. As the Lions faced essentially the end of postseason contention, Stafford pulled off the seventh come-from-behind victory in his career. What was once an impressive oddity is now a habit: Comebacks now represent nearly half of his 15 career victories.
"We just don't think any other way," cornerback Chris Houston said. "We look at the score and we start figuring out what we need to do. We say, 'We're going to score right there and then the defense will get the ball back to the offense or whatever.' Our offense, we have Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford. As long as we have them, we're never out of a game."
The worst mistake we could make, however, is to classify this occasion simply as another Stafford-Johnson production. Sure, Stafford threw for 220 yards and Johnson caught five passes for 107 yards after the start of the fourth quarter. But their late-game focus was clearly contagious Sunday.
"We don't ever give up," said defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, "because we know we have a quarterback that doesn't give up."
The Lions sensed the Eagles' vulnerability even after a blown coverage allowed Jeremy Maclin to dash 70 yards on a slant pattern for a touchdown that gave the Eagles a 23-13 lead. The Lions' defense elevated their game-long pounding of Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, and their offense started ad-libbing in a way that only a group of supremely confident teammates can do.
You saw tight end Tony Scheffler break downfield after a Stafford scramble to haul in an unplanned 57-yard pass to get in position for one score. There was defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh batting down a third-down pass by Vick, allowing the Lions to regain possession for the game-tying drive.
Johnson redirected his route on the fifth play of that possession, looking for open space and then tight-roping the sideline moments after he and Stafford had made the adjustment during a brief conversation. The catch, confirmed by replay, put the Lions in position for Jason Hanson's game-tying 19-yard field goal.
The Lions then opened overtime with consecutive sacks of Vick, one by Cliff Avril and a second shared by Vanden Bosch and Nick Fairley. At that point, there suddenly was no doubting who would win the game. An angry crowd knew it as well and began filing out even before the Lions took over possession. Hanson won it on a 45-yard field goal on the Lions' fifth play of overtime.
"The crazy thing is, we almost expect it," Vanden Bosch said. "If we're close and we're in the fourth quarter, we almost expect that we'll come back and win it. I guess that's a good thing, but it would be nice to jump out to a lead and hold on to a lead."
Yes, it's fair to wonder when the Lions can start mixing in some conventional victories. They've needed fourth-quarter comebacks in both victories this season -- including Week 1 against the St. Louis Rams -- and Stafford said, "We can't make it this hard on ourselves every week."
And let's not forget that the Lions had 16 penalties enforced against them Sunday -- including 10 for a false start or encroachment -- and didn't convert a third down until the fourth quarter. After three quarters, Stafford had completed only 7 of 21 passes and was on the way to one of the worst games of his career.
The rational part of me wants to suggest that most every team will lose under those circumstances. But Stafford gives the Lions an edge in those situations, and his teammates are now running with it. His ability to brush aside failure and embrace hope is real and undeniable.
"I know those guys believe in me," Stafford said, "and I believe in them. We had chances to make plays, whether I missed them or they weren't made, we understand that's part of the game of football. It's not always going to be perfect and it's not always going to be pretty."
The Lions can't win all of their games with comebacks, but with Stafford we can say with some confidence that they're going to steal a few more than most teams. It's an extra boost of confidence that a 2-3 team needs in a highly competitive division.
"You could feel this was a big step for us, as a team, playing team football," Schwartz said. "A lot of spirit, guys picking each other up. That's a good sign for things to come for this team."
We can't say where this victory will take the Lions. But we should darn well know not to count them out. Not for the playoffs or anything else. I won't make that mistake again.