Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY

Clutch Detroit Lions Grasp First Place In NFC North By Defeating Minnesota Vikings

The Detroit Lions are in first place with five-games remaining in the season. The team that has been trailing in all 11 games they’ve played this year also has a one-and-a-half-game lead n their division. It’s counterintuitive but the Lions have made enough big plays in big situations to make it reality.

They did it again – for the seventh time this season the Detroit Lions were behind in the fourth quarter and found a way to comeback and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

For the record, those seven comeback wins account for every victory the Lions have this year.  They are also good for a 7-4 record, which is tops in the NFC North.

It can be exciting – exhilarating even.  One thing it isn’t, though, is easy.  If you ask the Lions, it’s more labor than luck.

“Charmed Life?  Charmed life, we’d be up by 30 in the fourth quarter,” said Matthew Stafford.  “We’re just battling, you know, I think that’s more than anything.  We don’t feel lucky to be down in every fourth quarter.  We feel like we’re working our tails off to get wins and, you know, have still yet to put together a three-phase, 60-minute game where we all play really well.”

To Stafford’s point, the Lions have had to scratch and crawl their way through games – win or lose.  It’s not just their victories that have been close, it's every game.  Consider this; they are the first team in NFL history to have their first 11 games in a season decided by seven points or fewer.

So, yeah, the guys wearing Honolulu blue - the guys representing a blue-collar city – have shown off their grit, battling until the end and pouncing on their opportunities.  Still, it’s more than that.  There are some intangibles at play.  Fortitude, Wherewithal, poise – or whatever you want to call it. 

In a league known for parity, there are so many middling teams – maybe more this year than usual.  So those traits separate the Lions.  This is exemplified throughout their roster, starting with their quarterback.

“We got (number) nine as our quarterback,” said cornerback Darius Slay. “We have Matthew Stafford – what are ya’ll talking about?  The guy is a gunslinger.  We go in the fourth quarter (losing), we know Stafford will make a play.  We trust our receivers and O Line and they always come through for us.”

As the calendar inches closer to December and freezing temperatures approach, it’s fitting that Detroit’s quarterback has the proverbial ice water in his veins.  He’s accounted for seven fourth-quarter or overtime game-winning drives this season and has 25 such drives since 2011 – most in the NFL. 

Although, to be fair, the latest involved Stafford taking a knee to setup a field goal.

In fact, Slay was the one that made it so easy by intercepting Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford with about 35 seconds left in the game. 

“He’s kind of got a knack for it,” said head coach Jim Caldwell of Slay, who also forced a game-changing, fourth-quarter turnover earlier in the season.  “He’s one of those guys too that’s a bit of a riverboat gambler, he’ll take a chance when he sees it’s there.  He’ll go after it, he’s aggressive.  Doesn’t he have a nickname for himself or something like that?”

Caldwell referenced Slay’s nickname jokingly but the cornerback happened to underscore that moniker earlier.

“That’s why they call me Big Play Slay, I make big plays,” he said.

The game was tied when Slay made the interception, the Lions kicked the game-winning points a couple of plays later.

That’s where the next clutch performer comes into play – kicker Matt Prater. 

Not only did Prater score the game winning points with a 40-yard field goal as time expired, he scored the game-tying points 1:45 earlier from 48 yards out.

“I don’t think you can ever say anything is automatic but he’s as good as they come in those situations,” said Caldwell.

The numbers back that up, as Prater now has converted on 25-of-25 field goal attempts in the fourth quarter or overtime when faced with the opportunity to take the lead or tie the game.

A kicker that has never missed with a game-on-the-line situation.

A quarterback that leads the league in game-winning drives over the last five years.

A cornerback that has made multiple game-changing plays while his team was losing late in the fourth quarter.

These are examples of the immeasurable characteristics of the Detroit Lions.   Plays that don’t really show up in the stat sheet but show up in the win column.

Add them up and you’re in first place.


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