ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Until the final half-minute of their season opener, the Detroit Lions seemed to be following last year’s script. They’d let a sizeable lead slip away and were on the verge of a tough loss on the road.
Matthew Stafford’s final drive changed the outlook entirely.
Detroit came away with a 39-35 win at Indianapolis on Sunday, so instead of bemoaning a defensive collapse that let the Colts back in the game, the Lions can rejoice over a close win. In their first game since Calvin Johnson’s retirement, they had 28 first downs and 448 yards of offense.
“We have an abundance of mistakes to correct, but building upon a platform after you’ve won a game is a bit easier,” coach Jim Caldwell said Monday. “I do think that our guys did a lot of things right. There were a lot of things they did extremely well.”
The Lions will have a chance to build on their win when they play their home opener Sunday against a Tennessee team that won only three games a season ago and lost to Minnesota on Sunday.
In last season’s opener, Detroit blew a 21-3 lead and lost 33-28 at San Diego. The Lions went on to lose seven of their first eight games.
They were up 21-3 on Sunday as well, but the Colts rallied and took a 35-34 lead with 37 seconds to play. Then Stafford directed a quick 50-yard drive to set up Matt Prater’s 43-yard field goal . A safety on the ensuing kickoff pushed Detroit’s final margin to four.
Stafford faced plenty of questions about his consistency even when he had Johnson to throw to. So with Megatron no longer in the picture, Detroit’s quarterback has a lot to prove this season. Lions fans have to be encouraged by the opener, when he went 31 of 39 for 340 yards and three touchdowns.
Golden Tate had seven catches, newly acquired receiver Marvin Jones had four, and tight end Eric Ebron caught a touchdown pass near the end of the first half.
Stafford was sacked only once, and Detroit’s offensive line looked like an improved group.
“I felt like for the most part, (the offensive line) played just as a unit, more than we had been,” guard Larry Warford said. “Not much freelancing by too many people. There were instances where people were off doing their own thing sometimes, myself included, but I feel that we did play just as a unit better.”
The running game, a source of disillusionment in Detroit recently, looked sharp. Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick combined for 108 yards on 19 carries. Riddick ran for a 21-yard touchdown to open the scoring, and added a 13-yard TD reception in the fourth quarter. Abdullah caught an 11-yard touchdown pass in the third.
“For what we were asking them to do, they did a nice job,” Caldwell said. “You want to be about four yards a carry, overall. I think we were just a hair higher than that. Pretty good for us at this point.”
Detroit won six of its final eight games last season. Lions fans were hopeful that the midseason promotion of Jim Bob Cooter to offensive coordinator was a big reason, but there always seems to be a healthy amount of skepticism toward this franchise, so the 39-point showing right off the bat was a significant step.
“I don’t care what anybody says about anything, in this league it’s difficult to win a game anywhere, home or away,” Caldwell said. “Our guys were able to hang in there in a very tough contest and finish it off.”