INDIANAPOLIS — The Detroit Lions have already matched their first-half win total from last season.
They’ve won seven of nine dating back to last year, apparently found a ground game and an up-tempo offense, and even managed to rally when it looked like hope was lost Sunday afternoon.
The usually hard-luck Lions fought back from a missed extra point, and rather than allowing Andrew Luck to steal another win in the final minute, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford rallied his team. He led the Lions downfield for Matt Prater to redeem himself with a 43-yard field goal that gave Detroit a wild 39-35 victory at Indianapolis.
“Something was different about this one,” tight end Eric Ebron said after catching one TD pass Sunday. “I just felt too confident. I just knew if we got the ball inside the 50, we know our kicker. We just had to get the ball inside the 50.”
It didn’t take Stafford long to work his opening-day magic and give the Lions — a team that hasn’t won an NFL championship since 1957 — some real hope.
Stafford was brilliant Sunday, going 31 of 39 for 340 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He even outplayed Luck on the Colts’ home turf. Luck finished 31 of 47 with 385 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions, no fumbles, and almost another incredible comeback in his first regular-season start since early November.
Detroit hadn’t beaten the Colts since 1997 and hadn’t won in Indianapolis in 25 years.
Four years ago, Luck added his own chapter to the Lions’ heartbreak when he broke their hearts as his last-play TD pass helped the Colts rally from a 12-point deficit in the final seven minutes.
So when Prater missed an extra point and Luck answered with a 6-yard TD pass to Jack Doyle with 37 seconds to go to give Indy a 35-34 lead, some thought it was going to happen again.
Not these Lions.
“I was thinking they gave us too much time,” running back Ameer Abdullah said after rushing for 63 yards and catching an 11-yard touchdown pass. “That is one of our strong suits. We were a good two-minute team last year. That was very doable, very doable.”
Stafford, with two timeouts left, found receivers who turned short passes into big gains against Indy’s injury-depleted secondary, and Prater won it with 8 seconds to go.
Some other things key elements from Sunday:
LUCK IS BACK: Don’t just look at his stat line. Luck had no turnovers, a 119.5 rating and while he did take some hits, he also found a way to avoid more hits. That’s a far cry from how he played last season, when he was 2-7 as a starter and missed seven games with injuries. And it gives the Colts hope that he’ll be back to his Pro Bowl form in 2016.
“I think our quarterback obviously was exceptional – he played one hell of a football game,” coach Chuck Pagano said.
RUNNING HARD: A year ago, the Lions averaged a league-low 83.4 yards rushing per game and scored only seven rushing touchdowns. On Sunday, they had topped that mark by halftime and finished the day with a solid 116-yard game and topped it off with scores from Theo Riddick and Dwayne Washington. A running game to balance Stafford’s passing would do wonders for Detroit.
INJURIES HURT: The Colts went into the game already down three key players in the secondary. Three more got hurt Sunday. So when Stafford came out for the final series, he had a huge advantage.
After the game, Pagano acknowledged the defense ran out of steam before they could finish off the game.
LIONS’ OPTIONS: Even without retired receiver Calvin Johnson, the Lions have plenty of options for Stafford to work with. Four players — Golden Tate, Riddick, Abdullah and Ebron — had five or more catches and three of them caught TD passes. And in addition to Abdullah, Riddick added seven carries for 45 yards a score on the ground. That’s encouraging with Megatron no longer around.