It isn’t always pretty – that could be the tag line of the Detroit Lions 2016 season so far.
The 6-4 Lions are in first place in the NFC North and are in a position to distance themselves from the Minnesota Vikings (also 6-4) when they host their division rival in four days.
Detroit hasn’t gotten here by blowing teams out or stringing together gaudy boxscores, instead they have trailed in the fourth quarter for all six of their victories and simply made the necessary plays at the necessary times.
“Wasn’t perfect, obviously a lot of flaws, but winning never is pretty, at least not for us these days,” said head coach Jim Caldwell while addressing the media post his team’s 26-19 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. “So we’ll take it.”
There will be no apologies for winning, nor should there be. However, the Lions intentions certainly are not to hang around until the fourth quarter and hope for heroics to squeeze out a victory.
“We go out there and we’re trying to score 2,000 points if we can,” said Caldwell. “We’re trying to stop them every single time, but it doesn’t work out that way. So our mindset is not that, ‘keep it close and see if we can win,’ that’s not our mindset. But nevertheless, it’s just the way it’s happening, so you have to accept that and find a way to win.”
The Lions have won five of their last six games but have a margin of victory of only 4.2 points during that stretch. It’s also taken some big moments – such as two non-offensive touchdowns in their most recent win – to get it done.
To the Lions credit, winning teams tend to rise to the occasion during those big moments - and often success during those big moments is a product of preparation.
For instance, when the Lions faced a punting situation late in the fourth quarter – fourth and four from the Jacksonville 46 – the game was still very much up for grabs. There was still two and a half minutes left, Jacksonville had two timeouts and could have won the game with a touchdown.
Instead of sending out the punt team, quarterback Matthew Stafford and the offense stayed on the field. They had converted some fourth-and-shorts from that area of the field in previous weeks and knew the Jaguars would respect the fact they could run a play. They also knew that Jacksonville had a tendency to jump in that situation.
“Philip Rivers did it (earlier in the year against Jacksonville) and it worked,” said Matthew Stafford of the play. “Went up to the line and, you know, we always have options there. At that particular point I don’t think Coach (Caldwell) would’ve liked it that I checked into a play, but you know, it worked.”
An encroachment call later and the Lions have a big first down.
Simply put, the Lions went from needing a defensive stop to keeping their offense on the field because they were prepared for that moment.
The same could be said for the go-ahead touchdown Detroit scored in the fourth-quarter. The offense hadn’t done much until that point, but they came up with a 79-yard touchdown drive when they needed it most.
The play that capped that drive – a one-yard run by Eric Ebron – came on second down and was a critical play against a defense that hadn’t given up much on the ground throughout the game and had proven stingy in coverage. If the Lions come away with a field goal, the complexion of the game is much different. However, the Lions were ready for the moment and – like has happened so many times with the offense on the door step this year – offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter had the prefect play ready to catch the opposition by surprise.
“(Cooter) is always looking for new stuff that can get us touchdowns,” said Stafford. “It’s a testament to him, he looks around the league, sees things that may work, that may not work – miss by one thing or another that we can find a way to make a little bit better. That’s just how he is, he works to find touchdowns and that was obviously a good one.”
The Lions were outgained by Jacksonville, lost the time of possession battle and had less first downs. Still they found a way to win by virtue of making the necessary plays.
A punt return for a touchdown, an interception return for a touchdown, creative play calling and a heady play at the line of scrimmage were the difference in this game.
It’s not perfect, it’s not even pretty. It’s the product of preparation and perseverance. It’s what winning teams do and – at least for the moment – the Lions are in a winning position because they are putting themselves in a position to win.