JEFF SEIDEL: Stafford marches Lions back, defense seals it

Once again, it was on Matthew Stafford.

Once again, Stafford came through in the clutch, leading the Detroit Lions to a 31-28 victory.

Yes, they’ve been here before. Game on the line. Injuries all across the lineup. Craziness everywhere you turned.

“I think we’ve gotten to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said, after his team’s 31-28 victory over the Los Angeles Rams.

And this was plenty uncomfortable, like a colonoscopy without the anesthesia. Come to think of it, that could be the Lions’ slogan: Leaving people in pain for generations.

But this time, the Lions came through in the clutch. Just like last week. In fact, it was eerily similar to last week.

Matthew Stafford was doing his thing, playing loose and aggressive, throwing four touchdown passes to four different receivers and running when he absolutely needed it. “That is one tough son of a gun,” Golden Tate said, after catching eight passes for 165 yards and a touchdowns. “Every year, I thank God. Thank you for this tough, Texas boy. You never have to worry about him showing up.”

Stafford led the Lions downfield on another fourth-quarter game-winning drive, although this one was different. It played out in slow motion, as he tried to eat clock while gaining yards – a tremendous display of composure. And Matt Prater kicked a 34-yard field goal, and then, that defense got the stops it needed, as Raefal Bush intercepted a pass to secure the win. All that was left was some ridiculous pushing and shoving at the end.

“I don’t think there’s any situation that’s too tough for us,” Stafford said.

This was a game you figured the Lions would win. And, of course, it was a game that was far closer for comfort – all because of Case Keenum. The Lions went all out to stop Rams running back Todd Gurley, holding him to just 58 yards. Basically, they said: “Gurley, you won’t beat us. Anybody but you.”

Then, Keenum nearly did. Keenum threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns, at one point, completing 19 straight passes. This was a guy who had thrown for over 300 yards once in his career – and he passed that with almost a quarter to play.

But that was a risk Caldwell was willing to take to shut down Gurley, a calculated gamble, and it worked. “It wasn’t pretty but they did a really nice job,” Caldwell said. “It was kind of deceiving.”

The Lions were missing linebacker DeAndre Levy (knee) and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (shoulder). And, at times, it looked like they had nine players on defense, as Keenum found wide open receivers.

Now remember. This was the Rams, a team with the worst offense in the NFL, averaging 16.4 points per game. And they had 14 points after their first two possessions. This was a nearly the worst passing team in the league (30th), averaging 202.4 yards, and Keenum was finding open receivers, over and over and over, converting third downs at a frightening rate.

Meanwhile, the Lions had all their normal miscues: penalties, missed tackles and plenty of dropped passes. But the Lions prevailed, taking chances, being loose and aggressive, converting two fourth-down plays, using a go-for-broke mentality and leaving the Rams frustrated.

“We can’t get to the quarterback,” Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. “He’s back there all day, passing the ball, making plays.”

Sure, the Lions had some built in excuses. They were playing without five starters, including right guard Larry Warford, tight end Eric Ebron, running back Theo Riddick, and running back Dwayne Washington. And they were starting two rookies on the offensive line.

But that line held up. Zach Zenner powered for 58 yards and Stafford made just enough plays with his arm and with his feet to win this game.

“We had some new guys playing in some different spots up front and they blocked their (butts) off,” Stafford said. “What did we give up? One sack.”

That’s outstanding.

The Lions defense came up with the stops when it mattered most. At the end of the game. But a moment that was just as important happened at the end of the first half.

“Let’s go!” Caldwell screamed from the sideline. “Let’s go!”

It was fourth-and-goal from the 1, the last play of the second quarter.

After a time-out, the Lions brought in five new players onto the field, all big and beefy.

The Rams lined up in the I-formation, fullback motion. Todd Gurley plunged straight ahead.

They say games are won or lost in the trenches, and that’s what happened on this play

Tyrunn Walker, a Lions defensive tackle who missed most of last season with a broken leg, won the battle at the line of scrimmage. He came bursting through the line of scrimmage, ending up on his knees, on the other side. He hit Todd Gurley low, wrapping up his thighs.

Then, here came Stefan Charles, a 6-foot-5, 320-pound defensive tackle. Charles hit him high.

Tahir Whitehead came over the top, to clean it up.

It was a crucial goal-line stand. It was about toughness and grit. It was about finding a way. It was about making the plays when it mattered the most.

It might be uncomfortable to watch. But it’s working.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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