This year, the Detroit Lions get the coffee for closers.
For the second season in a row, the Lions blew a 21-3 first-half lead in Week 1, but there was a crucial difference. A year ago, they dropped a 33-28 decision to San Diego — a disaster that led to a 1-7 start to the season.
This year, even after the Colts took a 35-34 lead in the final minute, Matthew Stafford was able to drive down the field for Matt Prater’s game-winning 44-yard field goal with four seconds to play. The Lions added two points after time had expired when Indianapolis threw a forward pass in the end zone while trying to run a multi-lateral kickoff return.
The 39-35 victory made Prater a hero, moments after he thought he had cost his team the game. The score was tied at 28 until Stafford threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Theo Riddick with 4:10 to play. Prater, though, shanked the extra point, leaving Detroit with only a six-point lead.
Twitter exploded with angst — an understandable reaction from a fanbase that has only seen as many 0-16 seasons as playoff wins in the last 59 years. Everything about Lions history said that the Colts were going to march down the field, score a touchdown and kick the extra point for a 35-34 victory.
Sure enough, Andrew Luck continued to chew up Detroit’s secondary, hitting Jack Doyle for his second touchdown of the fourth quarter with 37 seconds to play. Adam Vinatieri’s extra point was perfect.
The curse of the Honolulu-blue-and-silver was intact — the Lions were going to throw away another game in bizarre fashion.
Stafford, though, had all three timeouts and the fire that has led him to 21 career game-winning drives in the fourth quarter.
“During that Indianapolis drive, I was trying to get the offense prepared,” he said. “I just kept telling them that whatever the situation, we could handle it. We work on those drives every day in practice, and Coach Caldwell never gives us all three timeouts, so this was a little easier.”
Stafford hit Theo Riddick for 19 yards, then called a timeout. He completed a nine-yard pass to Eric Ebron, called his second timeout and then screamed at Ebron for wasting time fighting for extra yards instead of going down.
That moved the ball into Indianapolis territory, and Stafford hit his third straight pass — a 22-yard gain to Marvin Jones along the left sideline. Jones dove forward instead of going out of bounds, meaning the Lions had to call their final timeout.
As he had done with Ebron, Stafford told his top wide receiver that mental mistakes in the final minute of a game are not acceptable.
“We’ve got to stay focused,” he said. “We had the time, but we needed to keep making plays.”
The last pass moved the ball into field-goal range, but that meant relying on the man who had just missed an extra point. Don Muhlbach’s snap was high, but punter Sam Martin got it down and Prater drilled it down the middle.
“I was pretty upset with myself over the extra point, and I was still upset when I went out there,” he said. “I felt like, as hard as the guys had worked, I was going to let them down. I’m just glad they gave me a chance to redeem myself.”
Stafford wasn’t worried.
“We’ve got a great kicker and I wasn’t sweating that last field goal at all,” he said. “I know Matt, and after he missed the extra point, I knew that if we gave him the chance, he’d make a 65-yarder if we needed it to win. That’s how he is.”
The Lions still have major issues — the Colts put up 450 yards and 35 points against a healthy Detroit defense — but they took an important step on Sunday.
They’ve thrown away as many games as any NFL franchise in the last 20 years, but in Indianapolis, they were able to rally again for the victory.