Last year, this was a team that collapsed when things went bad, struggled in the fourth quarter and finished 3-13, second-worst in the NFL. Coach Rod Marinelli has tried to teach the Lions to play one snap at a time — good snap, bad snap, move on. Well, apparently his lessons have sunk in.
In the opener at Oakland, the Lions blew a 17-0 lead. They fell behind, 21-20. But they rallied in the fourth quarter and won, 36-21.
In the home opener against Minnesota, all kinds of strange stuff happened. Quarterback Jon Kitna left with a concussion in the second quarter and came back in the fourth. Jason Hanson missed a potential 48-yard, game-winning field-goal attempt in the final minute of regulation. That's just the start. This was a game with 10 turnovers, 19 penalties and countless twists and turns. But the Lions persevered and won in overtime, 20-17.
"I'm just happy to see it," said offensive lineman Jeff Backus, who was Matt Millen's first draft pick and has played every game of the 26-72 Millen era. "I don't know in the past we'd be able to pull this one out. But we've got a bunch of high-character guys who are fighting through mistakes and bad breaks and not worrying about it, just moving on to the next play."
Mental toughness won't be able to save the Lions if they don't have Kitna, though, especially against teams like the Eagles. Kitna is clearly the key to the offense, which is clearly the key to the team. When Kitna left Sunday's game, Ford Field deflated. Backup J.T. O'Sullivan, who had never thrown a pass in a regular-season NFL game, wasn't nearly as effective. When Kitna came back, everybody in Honolulu blue perked up — from the fans to the defense and obviously the offense.
Kitna led the Lions to victory in overtime. On their first offensive play, he threw a pass ... to himself. The ball was batted at the line, and he grabbed it, scrambled to the right, took a hit and went flying through the air for a nine-yard gain. He scrambled for six more yards and a first down two plays later. That led teammates to talk about him in the same breath with LaDainian Tomlinson, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
"I don't think he knew where he was today," wide receiver Roy Williams said. "So he just turned himself into a running back. He thought he was LaDainian Tomlinson out there, jumping over everybody, trying to run people over, holding the ball like a Pop Warner football when you first learn how to hold it. But he's the heart of this football team, man."
"He's the pulse of our team," third-string quarterback Dan Orlovsky said. "Indy can have Peyton and New England can have Tom, but we wouldn't trade this guy for anyone in the world. He's the best quarterback in this league right now. I'm saying as far as a quarterback. I'm not saying passer or runner or anything."